Arizona Jury Reforms Buck Legal Traditions POWER TO THE JURORS

By William H. Carlile, Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Arizona Jury Reforms Buck Legal Traditions POWER TO THE JURORS


William H. Carlile, Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AFTER being tied up in the Arizona courts for 15 years, a double-murder trial appeared headed for another impasse. The jury was deadlocked after four days of deliberations.

Defying 200 years of jurisprudence tradition, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Dann tried a bold experiment. He opened a dialogue between himself, the jurors, and the attorneys in the case.

To address juror confusion, Judge Dann ordered the lawyers for each side to reargue the case for one hour. The procedure worked. After another three hours of deliberation, the jury returned an acquittal.

The willingness of judges in this Southwestern state to buck traditions - armed with the latest behavioral research - is putting Arizona in the vanguard of American judicial reform.

In December, the Arizona Supreme Court enacted a sweeping set of changes - such as allowing jurors to ask questions during a trial - designed to engage jurors more fully in the legal process.

Many of the reforms "have a great deal of common sense behind them" and are likely to be models for other states, says Marc Whitehead, a Minneapolis attorney and chairman of the American Bar Association's task force on juries.

Already, the Delaware Supreme Court is studying the Arizona experiment. California is also looking at reforming its jury system in the wake of the the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

A growing concern among judges is what Dann calls "unacceptably low levels" of understanding among jurors of legal procedures, rules of evidence, and court instructions. He recently wrote that juries often don't reflect today's diverse society and that there's a passivity among jurors that can weaken the judicial system.

In April 1993, long before the Simpson case raised similar jury reform issues, the Arizona Supreme Court established the Committee on More Effective Use of Juries - a panel of former jurors, academics, jury administrators, attorneys, and judges.

Arizona Chief Justice Stanley Feldman, who convened the panel, says that the review became necessary because the system was "encrusted" with procedures dating back 100 years or more. Those procedures, he says, were based on assumptions that social scientists have since proved false about how people process information and reach decisions.

"We've learned a lot about how people process information and decide things," Justice Feldman says. "A lot of what we thought was so, is demonstrably not so."

The panel produced a list of 55 recommendations. The state has adopted 18 of them, some of which allow:

*Jurors in civil cases to discuss evidence among themselves before deliberating. …

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