What are Jury Instructions?
Jury instructions are directions from a judge to a jury that are provided when a case is concluded and the jury is preparing to adjourn to deliberate over the matter. The instructions provide the jurors with a framework they must consider when making determinations about the facts of the case. These instructions are written down by the judge and read out to the jury. Jurors can also request a copy for use in the jury room during their deliberations.
Juries are charged with finding the facts of a case. In the jury instructions, the judge tells jurors how to arrive at a verdict as they deliberate. The instructions may be very simple or they may involve layers of complexity that must be sifted through as jurors consider the information presented in court. Especially if the accused is facing multiple charges, the jury instructions can become very elaborate.
Several standards must be met when giving jury instructions. The judge must use plain, clear language to create an understandable statement. If legal jargon is necessary, it must be defined in the jury instructions so that the jurors know what it means. In addition, the instructions must be legal. A judge cannot give directions that violate the law. If instructions do not meet the legal standard, there is a chance that the verdict could be challenged on appeal on the grounds that the instructions were confusing or illegal in nature.
Many regional courts have standardized jury instructions for the use of their judges. Judges can fill in the blanks with names and offenses. Judges are not required to use these, however. They can opt to write their own instructions. In either case, judges usually consult with the attorneys on both sides of a case to confirm that the instructions are clear and accurate. This provides the lawyers with an opportunity to request a re-wording or to challenge an aspect of the instructions before the jury hears them.
Jurors may be of widely varying educational levels. Some may have no difficulty understanding the instructions, while others may need them explained or clarified. For jurors who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have auditory processing disorders, instructions must be provided in an accessible medium with the assistance of captions or sign language translation. People who require accommodations of this nature to serve on a jury should alert the court so that appropriate steps can be taken.
I can't see how jurors can hear the judge's jury instructions and follow them to the letter during deliberations. I'd be very tempted to discuss things that weren't actually brought up during the trial or entered as evidence. I guess I've seen too many cases where the defendant is found not guilty just because the prosecutors couldn't get crucial evidence admitted in court.
When I served on a mock civil jury, the judge gave us some very basic jury instructions, mostly about considering only the evidence presented in court. He said we weren't supposed to discuss the past acts of either party, which was important because the defendant was a well-known company that had been sued many times before this case.
I thought we got standard jury instructions that were very clear, but several other jury members asked the judge for advice. I was surprised when he came into the room. He explained that if we felt the plaintiff was even 1% liable for the accident, we had to find in favor of the defendant. That piece of additional information pretty much ended our deliberations. We found in favor of the defendant.
I see now how important the wording of a judge's instruction can be. I don't think most criminal attorneys in real cases would have allowed the judge to get that specific.
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