Are Massachusetts Jurors Permitted to Ask Questions to Witnesses in Criminal Trials?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a Roxbury man while affirming the trial judge’s rare decision to allow the jurors to pose questions to the witnesses.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gomes

The facts of the case are convoluted.  There appears to have been some sort of turf war near the defendant’s parents’ apartment building in Roxbury.  In February of 2007, an individual chased the defendant’s nephew around the block.  The same day, the defendant drove a car in the area of the apartment complex and his passengers shot at a group of men.  The victim was one of the men who was shot, and he died upon arrival at the hospital.  The police later executed a search warrant at an apartment connected to the defendant and found drugs, a large amount of cash, and four guns.  The Commonwealth’s theory of the case at trial was that the defendant was a joint venturer (as the driver) in a scheme to take revenge against men who were involved in chasing his nephew earlier in the day.  The defendant argued he was mistakenly identified as having been involved and did not intend to kill anybody.  The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and the judge sentenced him to the mandatory life sentence.  The defendant appealed.

The defendant advanced a number of arguments on appeal, including that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly participated in the fatal shooting.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the defendant had motive to commit the crime, he was identified as the driver of the car from which bullets were fired (after he stopped the car next to the group of men who were being targeted), and he sped away from the crime scene after the shooting.  On those facts, the jury’s verdict was proper.

The more interesting appellate argument related to the trial judge’s practice of allowing jurors to ask questions of the witnesses.  It is extremely rare for a judge to permit jurors to submit their own questions.  However, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that in some cases, juror questioning may be appropriate.  The Court cautioned trial judges, however, that juror questioning should be utilized infrequently and with great caution because of its potential to cause prejudice, delay, and error.  Therefore, trial judges should permit juror questioning only in those cases where the judge believes it is particularly necessary for some reason.  In those cases, the trial judge is obligated to instruct the jurors that their questions must comply with the rules of evidence, they may not become upset if their questions are objected to and disallowed, and they may not give the answers to their own questions extra weight.  Further, the jurors are required to write down their questions, which are then reviewed by the judge and the attorneys in private (where the attorneys are permitted to object to the questions if they do not comply with the rules of evidence).  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the trial judge in this case followed the appropriate procedures related to juror questioning.  Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.

The problem with allowing juror questioning (in addition to the time that is wasted by the process) is that it transforms the jurors from fact finders into advocates.  When jurors begin asking questions, it is inevitable that they will begin to form opinions about the case prior to the start of their deliberations.  Juror questioning is a terrible practice, and fortunately it doesn’t happen often in Massachusetts.