Some time ago I spent a week in London. On my “bucket list” was a visit to Old Bailey, the very old criminal court where many famous barristers have practiced their trade.
Once inside, not being a British citizen, I had to work my way past several ID checkpoints. Eventually, however, I came to the main courtroom, where I was given a seat with the media in the gallery. As luck would have it, this was a murder case that had taken place in Wales.
Just like you see in the movies, the gallery doesn’t sit on the first floor. Instead, the benches form a kind of balcony, and the rows of them rise at a very steep angle so that you have the feeling that if you slip you’ll plunge headlong for three or four rows before you can get stopped.
After getting settled, I surveyed the scene and I found three things that I hadn’t expected. The first was that the female clerks helping the court all wore powdered white wigs, the same as the men. Very strange.
The second was that there were no witnesses testifying. Instead, the barristers had apparently gone to Wales, where the witnesses were interviewed under oath both for the prosecution and the defense, their statements reduced to writing, and the writings brought back to London and read to the jury. Also very strange.
Third, all the jurors had a pad and pencil and were very busy taking notes.
Obviously, the British had come to grips with the problem of whether or not jurors should be allowed to take notes during a trial. For many years, Pennsylvania and a number of other states would not permit jurors to take notes. The theory was that they might not write down what was actually said, and having made this error, would then compound it by arguing that the mistaken information must be accurate, simply because they wrote it down.
In 2005, however, the state Supreme Court adopted a rule that said jurors sitting on criminal cases that are expected to last three days or more are permitted to take notes and to take them to the deliberation process. For trials of one or two days, the court may grant permission for note taking.
At the end of a trial, the judge explains the applicable law to the jurors. This explanation is called the “charge.” The explanation can be long and a little technical for those not familiar with the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, the jury is not permitted to have notes of the judge’s charge unless the trial judge gives his or her permission. When permission is given, a number of other items are required to be given also, such as all defenses upon which the jury has been instructed.
Those British are so smart.
Thomas Young, a graduate of Pitt and Harvard Law School, has been a lawyer in Johnstown since 1958. He is a former professor of business law at Pitt-Johnstown. Readers may send questions to Young in care of The Tribune-Democrat. The opinions expressed in this column are general in nature and may not apply to your situation. Consult your attorney for advice on specific legal matters.
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