One of the most overlooked areas in trying a criminal case is the jury instructions that the jurors will receive by the trial judge at the end of the case.
Most appellate reversals of criminal convictions are the result of jury instructions that deviate from the model charges or when the trial court misstates or reads to the jury instructions which are inaccurate.
The focus of this article however is not on errors by the trial judge but more importantly on the need by the defense attorney to insure that the jury understands the law and how it applies or does not apply to the facts of the case before the jury. Only when the jury understands the law can they make an informed decision regarding the innocence of the accused resulting hopefully in a not guilty verdict.
As Professor Peter Tiersma recently observed, “There has been a substantial amount of research during the past decade documenting that jurors do not understand traditional instructions very well, especially when more difficult concepts come into play.”
To begin with most jurors do not understand the concept of reasonable doubt. Research in this area by criminologists Lieberman and Sales, in their treatise, "What Social Science Teaches Us About Jury Instruction Process", estimates that 75% of jurors do not even understand that if they find reasonable doubt that they must acquit.
An additional problem and far more greater danger to the defendant is the danger that the jury will hear through other crime evidence, (Rule 404b evidence) that the defendant has a prior record. In these cases the tendency is that the jury will take confront in convicting the defendant, even in a close case with reasonable doubt, if they believe that the defendant is a bad person, and should be punished.
Therefore with that in mind it is essential that defense counsel use every possible legal means to convey the jury instructions in language that the jury will understand.
First, in regards to reasonable doubt it is important that the defense counsel in concrete terms through stories, analogies, metaphors and parables, convey to the jury what reasonable doubt is and is not. One helpful tool is a chart, which I use (if allowed by the trial judge), which explains different concepts of reasonable doubt.
Second, it is important in a circumstantial case that the jury is told a story in which circumstantial evidence wrongly accused someone of a crime or wrong that they did not commit. I use the story of the poor farm boy who was afraid of getting beaten by his father for eating the blueberry pie before supper, covered his little dog (his only possession which he loved dearly) with blueberry pie thinking that the father would blame the dog. The father, poor, overworked and uneducated beat his son’s dog to death in front of his son. This is a powerful story which conveys how circumstantial evidence without more can lead to the wrong conclusion.
Third, it is most important that the jury instructions are explained to the jury to explain in plain language how the law can not sustain a conviction based on the facts proven or not proven in the case. This is extremely important, and the judge will give defense counsel greater leeway, with crimes in which there is little or no case law, or there are no specific model charges for the offense in which the defendant is charged. In the case in which there are no model charges, it is essential that defense counsel begin to craft a charge at the beginning of the case.
In conclusion as with all criminal cases it is essential that defense counsel does not overlook one of the most important part of a criminal jury trial, that being the jury instructions and defense counsel making the jury understand how the charges can only lead to one honest and fair conclusion, that being, a not guilty verdict as to all charges. It is irresponsible to expect the jurors to figure out for themselves their most important function.
Law Office of Vincent J. Sanzone, Jr.
Elizabeth, New Jersey, New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney; How to win your criminal jury trial, NJ best criminal defense attorney
Dated: August 8, 2011