Imagine two college students of equal ability, both serious about their studies. They never miss a class. They sit near the front of the room and listen intently to the professor as he delivers his lecture.
One student takes notes as she listens.
The other does not. In fact, throughout the semester, she never writes down anything she has heard in class.
At the semester’s end, as two students prepare for the final, one student has only her memory and the textbook to guide her. The other has not only memory and the textbook, but notes taken by her own hand to which she can refer.
Assuming both students devote the same amount of time to studying, which of the two do you suppose will do better on the final?
I’m pretty sure it would be the note-taker, aren’t you?
Last week, as Circuit Court Judge Lee Coleman addressed the jury just before the start of the Lydia Martinez murder trial, he informed the jury of several “do and don’t” practices they should hold themselves to,
On the list was a reminder of what is and isn’t evidence. Evidence, he said, were the materials presented to the court and the testimony of the witnesses. That’s it.
Coleman said jurors would not be permitted to take notes, explaining that note-taking could be a distraction as they listened to the testimony, that notes could be wrongly perceived as evidence and that since some jurors might be better note-takers than others, Jurors might be tempted to rely on the notes of the best note-taker than their own impressions of the testimony.
Even so, I believe the benefits of note-taking far outweigh the dangers. I say this not only because of the scenario of the two students mentioned earlier, but because of my own experience as I watched the trial play out over four days.
Being a reporter at a trial is a lot like being a juror. You listen to the testimony and try to weigh the value of what you hear, picking out what’s most relevant in order to craft a narrative of what happened.
At the end of each day, after listening to hours of testimony, my job was to distill what I had heard and craft it into a narrative to share with the readers.
To the extent that I was successful in that effort, much depended on my note-taking, backed up by tape-recording of the proceedings.
I had one big advantage over the jurors — those notes.
I filled two reporter’s notebooks with what the witnesses said on the stand. It wasn’t stenography – I didn’t write down everything that was said. But when I heard something I thought was important, I wrote it down. Looking back at the notebooks after the trial, the pages were filled with underlined or circled words and phrases, stars, exclamation marks, question marks (when something a witness said seemed dubious) to remind me of something said that I considered to be of critical importance.
As the trial went on, a witness would often refer to something another witness had talked about the previous day or two or three days before and I would ask myself “Didn’t another witness say something about that? Who said it? What did he say? How did he say it?”
Being able to consult my notes allowed me to push back the fog of memory and have a clearer understanding of the testimony and put it into context. On more than one occasion, I found that my memory had been flawed.
As a reporter, having those notes was helpful. For a juror holding someone’s fate in their hands, I think it’s almost essential. Juries don’t get a chance to publish a correction when they get something wrong, after all.
In Mississippi, note-taking is allowed at the judge’s discretion, but in some states, jurors have been permitted to take notes for 30 years or more.
As it is with students and as it is with a reporter, the ability to take notes provides a better grasp of the evidence than what relying on memory affords.
So, with all due respect to Judge Coleman, I believe a jury that is permitted to take notes is better equipped to render the best possible verdict.
We expect our juries to ace the final, after all.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]