But in the perjury prosecution of Roger Clemens, jurors have been asking those very questions in court — providing a rare and real-time window into the thought process of the 15 District residents sitting in judgment of one of baseball’s biggest legends. The questions, reviewed by the presiding federal judge before being posed to witnesses, have revealed that at least some jurors seem skeptical of the prosecution and want to know more about off-limits testimony.
The federal judge, Reggie B. Walton, has long advocated engaging jurors more directly in trials by letting them ask questions, and he has told fellow judges that the practice ensures jurors are attentive and properly understand key testimony.
Walton, who has lectured on the topic at the National Judicial College, permitted such questions during another big trial — that of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2007, a decision that was later hailed as a “terrific idea” by the case’s initially doubtful prosecutor.
In federal court, judges have the authority to allow jurors to query witnesses, though the practice remains uncommon. In recent years, the procedure has gained traction in academic circles and has been occurring with more frequency in state courts, legal experts say.
“The old view of jurors is that they are blank slates,” said Shari Seidman Diamond, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. “But they are decision-makers, trying to figure out what is going on. They are trying things out. Questions help them process. This has all kinds of benefits.”
In the Clemens trial, the questioning has worked this way:
After each witness has finished testifying, Walton asks the jury if it has any questions. The 12 jurors and three alternates — one juror has already been excused, for sleeping — represent a broad cross-section of District residents. Among them are a Giant food clerk, a retired political science professor, a former ANC commissioner, a WMATA security officer and a Treasury Department official.
Sometimes jurors submit questions on note cards, sometimes they don’t. Walton then discusses the questions with prosecutors and defense lawyers during a private discussion at the bench, where either side can object to the query. Walton does not pose a question if he feels it is not legally permissible.
This account is based on transcripts of those private bench conferences:
So far, the jurors’ questions indicate that some seem uneasy with aspects of the government’s case. After federal agent Jeff Novitzky testified two weeks ago, for example, a juror asked about the authenticity of evidence that Clemens’s former strength coach, Brian McNamee, turned over to authorities in 2008. The strength coach claims to have injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) and saved syringes and cotton balls in a crumpled beer can. Prosecutors say scientists have linked Clemens’s DNA and steroids to one syringe found in the can.