Juror Questioning during Criminal Trials Common in Arizona

The lawyer’s were done asking the questions, and it was the jury’s turn. Steven Jones sat nervously in the witness box Friday morning, April 21, 2017, as his trial on murder and assault charges raced toward a close with jurors posing their own queries to him.

Sometimes jury questions can show which way a jury is leaning. Friday morning’s questions showed mostly that jurors had been paying attention. And they offered insights into areas where the lawyers didn’t go. Jones’ extensive gun training, for example, and his knowledge of first aid.

Jones, a former Northern Arizona University student, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the Oct. 9, 2015, shootings on the Flagstaff campus that left one student dead and three others wounded. He claims the shootings were in self-defense.

The jury will soon be called on to decide whether he is innocent or guilty of those, or lesser charges. Unlike in many jurisdictions, jurors in Arizona state courts are encouraged to ask questions in criminal trials.

The judge, prosecutors, and defense attorneys first review the written questions before they are asked in open court. They allow only those questions that are relevant and do not contradict earlier rulings made on what evidence and testimony is admissible.

The first question out of the box asked about gun safety and who taught Jones how to shoot. Jones said he first learned from a 4-H Club at age 8 or 9, but that he had extensive tutelage from his father, who trains law enforcement officers and is certified by the National Rifle Association.

The second and several subsequent questions quizzed Jones about his vision. His glasses were knocked off at the beginning of the fray that led to the shootings, and he claimed to have bad vision but still asserted he could see at a distance his friends being menaced by a crowd of five to 10 people.

Jones said his vision without glasses is 20/80 in the right eye and 20/60 in the left. But on the night of the shooting, he said he could see silhouettes and bright clothing colors, and could see a cluster of people In the middle of which he assumed his friends were.

The judge allowed 19 juror questions. Some verged on confrontational. Why did he say he shot the first students intentionally? Why did he tell police that no one else did anything wrong? And why did he walk toward the young men after he retrieved his gun from the car?

His answers were consistent. That he felt he was faced with an immediate threat, and he believed his friends were still in danger.

A juror asked, “Why didn’t you aim for the legs?” To which he responded that gun training – whether law enforcement, military or civilians – teaches to aim for the center body mass.

Jones has claimed that after he shot the first two students, he knelt over the more seriously injured student, Colin Brough, with the intention of rendering first aid.

He claims he was then jumped by a mob that tried to take his gun from him. That led to the expected question of how much first-aid training he had. The answer was a significant amount, including CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and basic first aid for gunshot and knife wounds.

One juror asked if Jones thought that he was the only person who could help when Jones claimed a group piled onto him and tried to take his gun after the first two students were wounded.

During his testimony Thursday, Jones said he was convinced that if the mob had gotten his gun, they would have killed him with it.

“I felt like no one was going to come and help me,” he told jurors. “And I couldn’t overpower all those guys.”

Two other defense witnesses briefly took the stand Friday, after which the defense and prosecution teams rested their cases. Closing arguments begin Tuesday.

Arizona in a 1994 Supreme Court Report entitled “Jurors: The Power of Twelve,” was one of the first – if not the first – state judicial branch to propose jurors be allowed to ask questions in civil and criminal trials subject to careful judicial supervision.