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Court: Judges May Encourage Jurors to Submit Witness Questions

October 27, 2016

In Hernandez v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court held that it was not error for the trial judge to encourage jurors to submit questions to witnesses during a murder trial.

The defendant was charged and convicted of malice murder and a firearm offense. At the beginning of trial, the judge instructed jurors that they could submit questions for the witnesses, after the witnesses had been examined by both parties. The judge reviewed the questions and gave counsel an opportunity to object and ask follow-up questions. Then the judge posed those questions that were deemed proper to the witnesses. In this manner, the trial judge asked over 70 of the jurors’ questions during the course of the trial.

The defendant appealed, claiming that it was error to solicit questions from the jury as well as to submit such a large number of the juror’s questions to the witnesses.

The Supreme Court held that this was not error because the trial court followed the proper procedure of screening juror questions through the trial judge. The Court noted that it previously held in Allen v. State that “[w]hile jurors in Georgia courts may not ask questions of witnesses directly, a trial court may receive written questions from the jury and ask those questions which the court finds proper.”

The Court also found that the defendant was unable to identify a single question or group of questions that was improper, harmful, or intimated the court’s opinion about the case. The Court did warn that “trial courts must be cautious in soliciting and asking jury questions, particularly in large numbers” but that the process followed by the trial judge here was not improper.

NOTE:  While jurors will request to ask questions to witnesses from time to time, it is unusual for a trial judge to specifically instruct or encourage the jury to do so. This appears to be a fairly common practice for the judge in this case. It will be interesting to see if this decision inspires other judges across the State to do the same.

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