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VOL. 115 | NO. 191 | Thursday, November 8, 2001

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Jury reform in West Tennessees future

Jury reform on horizon in West Tennessee


The Daily News

Jurors in 10 courtrooms across the state including Shelby County are participating in a new Tennessee Supreme Court jury reform pilot project aimed at improving conditions for citizens called to deliver verdicts in civil and criminal trials.

In 1998, the Tennessee Bar Association formed a Jury Reform Commission to evaluate jury procedures in the state.

The project, which runs Sept. 1 to March 1, will assess the potential effect of 14 recommendations by the commission.

In a 1999 report, the commission cited areas of the jury system needing improvements.

Participants in the pilot project include Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers and Criminal Court Judge James Beasley Jr. of Memphis.

Childers said a nationwide concern and movement is to make jury service more convenient for citizens who serve on juries, and to try and streamline the system and to avoid down time the time jurors wait.

The other concern of the pilot project is to make the process and trial more understandable to a jury. The ultimate goal is to help the jury arrive at a fair decision.

Akin to the TBA recommendations, Childers said in the 18 years he has been on the bench he has always given preliminary instructions to the jury before a trial starts.

With the preliminary instruction as part of the pilot project, we also include, and this is something that I have not done in the past, some of the substantive instructions on the law, he said.

Another recommendation he has always followed is allowing jurors take notes during the trial.

Jurors are now given a notebook in which to take notes. Childers has also instructed attorneys on both sides to include copies of all trial exhibits as well.

Childers also gives the jury written instructions at the end of the case and has been doing so for several years.

Something new for Childers as part of the TBA recommendations is charging the jury on the substantive law before closing arguments.

Other states have allowed that, he said but this is new for Tennessee.

So far, I like it. It seems to make the case flow better. It seems to make the lawyers job in closing arguments easier so they can talk about the charge that the jury has already heard, he said.

Again, thats one of the goals of this project to make it easier for the jury to understand.

In Tennessee, he said all 12 jurors must agree to a unanimous verdict, so its important they fully understand the process.

The jury selection process recommended is different but he has been using a similar method for several years, he said.

One of the more interesting recommendations and one Childers has come to appreciate is for jurors to be allowed ask questions of witnesses.

I was really reticent about this but so far its worked out really well, he said.

As a part of the pilot project, each participating judge will fill out a survey for each case. Both lawyers are and jurors are asked to fill out the survey, Childers said.

All of these are being sent to the law school at the University of Tennessee, and the results will be the blueprint for jury reform in Tennessee.

Childers thinks the recommendations should be seen only as guidelines to help the jury do its job better and should not be mandatory in Tennessee courts.

Juries are performing a difficult public but very important service, said Chief Justice Riley Anderson of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Across this state, jurors are performing a difficult public service that is the linchpin of our justice system.

These good citizens deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and we need to make their very critical task as informed, convenient and stress-free as we possibly can. That is the goal of the Supreme Court and the TBA in studying the issue and implementing this project, he said.

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