DENVER – When NBA star Kobe Bryant goes on trial later this year for sexual assault, jurors will be allowed to submit questions for witnesses under what is believed to be the first rule of its kind.
The possibility of juror questions in criminal cases is both exciting and scary to judges and attorneys.
"I'm hopeful this will be beneficial, even though I'm nervous about this. The reality is, no one knows how this will work," said Scott Robinson, a criminal defense attorney.
Jurors have been allowed to ask questions in Colorado civil cases for the past five years, but attorneys say much more is at stake in criminal cases. The rule takes effect statewide July 1.
State Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love-Kourlis (search), who headed a panel that studied the issue, said other states have tried the jury question option in various forms but Colorado is the first to make it a rule.
David Graeven, the president of Trial Behavior Consulting (search) in San Francisco, said other states are experimenting with ways to involve jurors but agreed Colorado has the nation's first rule on jury questions.
Most attorneys would rather know what jurors are thinking than guess, Graeven said Wednesday. Most now have to rely on mock juries or shadow jurors who sit in on trials and provide attorneys with feedback.
Colorado judges will be trained in how to handle the new rule and will be able to bar questions in cases involving suppressed evidence and other potentially thorny legal issues. Most are expected to give jurors a chance to participate.
"Jurors for the most part have been responsible. They take the process and their oaths seriously," Love-Kourlis said.
The rule was adopted after a pilot program ended in 2002 with mixed results.
Jurors in the study said they felt more involved in the trial and the questions removed some of the doubt in their verdicts. Attorneys said it gave them more insight into the jury, but also opened up the potential for new challenges.
"We had a juror who decided he could do a better job than the DA if given the opportunity. He was sending questions one after another," one judge said. "The bailiff would bring me one and he would have another ready when she got back over to the jury box."
The judge said the questions stopped after he told the jurors they should give attorneys a chance to work and ask if something still seemed unanswered. The study said the judge's experience was unusual.
Other jurors asked about prior offenses, which are often not allowed as evidence, and one wanted to ask a witness if he thought the defendant was guilty.
Mike Hodges, president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association (search), said he has been impressed with juror questions. In one case, a juror wanted to know why a police officer did not interview every witness to a traffic accident and seemed satisfied when the officer explained he had all the witnesses he needed.
How jury questioning will pan out in the Bryant case is unknown. State District Judge Terry Ruckriegle will have wide latitude in deciding what questions are relevant from a jury that will be asked to decide if the Los Angeles Lakers (search) star raped a 19-year-old resort worker last year.
Bryant, 25, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying the two had consensual sex. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison, 20 years to life on probation and a fine up to $750,000.
Attorneys for Bryant and the Eagle County district attorney's office did not return calls seeking comment.