Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rules for Juries Need Grilling

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rules for Juries Need Grilling

Article excerpt

IN HIS NEARLY 12 years as a federal judge, Brook Bartlett has seldom asked questions of witnesses.

But Bartlett had plenty to ask in the nine days of testimony in what the judge calls the "sentencing trial" of former Missouri Attorney General William L. Webster.

"If a jury were here, I wouldn't be asking question one," he assured lawyers last week.

That would have been too bad.

Unlike the lawyers, Bartlett didn't ask questions aimed at promoting a particular view of the evidence. His more objective queries reflected his role in the case: Figuring out the truth of Webster's involvement in corruption surrounding the state's Second Injury Fund.

The judge's active role wasn't the only refreshing and unusual aspect of the proceedings.

The lawyers rarely interrupted the witnesses with objections, being willing to let Bartlett consider almost every piece of evidence offered by the other side. There were few private conferences at the bench; most discussions about evidence and scheduling took place in open court in full public view. Although the hearing lasted unusually long for a sentencing, it was far shorter than a jury trial would have been.

One wondered: Why can't all trials be this sensible?

The answer is that judges and lawyers don't trust jurors to separate legal wheat from chaff. While there's some basis for that mistrust, there is little reason that Joe Juror, factfinder, shouldn't get more of the same respect accorded to Brook Bartlett, factfinder.

Take, for example, the jury selection process, which tends to select jurors who have not read or viewed news accounts of well-publicized cases. Mark Twain observed in 1871 that such a system imposes "a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium upon ignorance. . . ."

Jurors should be held to the same standard as Judge Bartlett, who undoubtedly had been exposed to media accounts of Webster and the Second Injury Fund. If he believed he could not be impartial, the judge was bound to remove himself from the case. Otherwise, he would be bound to base his decision on what he heard in the courtroom. Jurors can, too.

Bartlett took meticulous notes throughout the hearing. …

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