Washington State Jury Commission
Improving the Trial Process for Jurors
Trial judges should set reasonable overall time limits for each party at trial. To set time limits, the court should consider among other factors: the number of witnesses; the number and complexity of issues; the respective evidentiary burdens of the parties; the nature of evidence to be presented; the feasibility of shortening trial by stipulations; and pre-admitting exhibits.
Judges should encourage all trial participants to use plain language likely to be understood by the jury. Judges should also take steps to minimize juror confusion.
In both civil and criminal cases, after the jury is impaneled, the judge should instruct the jurors as to the basic elements of the claims, charges, and defenses. The judge must inform the jurors that the instructions are preliminary only and that their deliberations must be governed by the final instructions.
When the procedure will assist jurors, the court should distribute place cards, name tags, or seating charts identifying parties, witnesses, counsel, and other pertinent individuals in the courtroom.
Court rules should be amended to allow jurors to take notes in every case, regardless of the length or complexity of the trial. Jurors should be permitted to review their own notes in the jury room during recesses.
Juror notebooks should be provided in lengthy or complex cases and in other cases at the judge’s discretion. The notebooks should contain information that will help jurors perform their duties, such as preliminary instructions, a summary of claims and defenses, and copies of key exhibits.
Exhibits and depositions should be marked and admitted to the greatest extent feasible before potential jurors are conducted to the courtroom for jury selection.
When a witness appears by written or videotaped deposition, the testimony proposed for admission should be identified and objections to admission resolved before potential jurors arrive at the courtroom. When deposition testimony is read to the jury, each juror should be provided, to the extent feasible, with a redacted transcript of the testimony for the juror’s use during the reading. Redactions should not be apparent to the jury.
In every case, jurors should be permitted to submit written clarifying questions to witnesses, subject to careful judicial supervision. The decision of whether to permit a question rests with the judge, although counsel retain the right to object to the scope or content of any specific question. Jurors are not permitted to ask oral questions. The rules of civil procedure and criminal procedure should be amended accordingly.
In long trials, the court should consider allowing periodic mini-opening statements to improve juror understanding.
To the greatest extent feasible, each juror should be given a copy of the jury instructions before oral instruction by the court.
Jury instructions should be readily comprehensible by jurors. They should be case specific and stated in plain language. The number and length of instructions should be reduced to a minimum.