California

What Are Jury Instructions in a Criminal Trial?

December 05, 2022 by Madison Ferguson in California  Criminal Defense  
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Detailing Jury Instructions

Jury deliberation follows the presentation of evidence and the conclusion of closing arguments in a jury trial. The judge will write up guidelines for the jury to follow while they deliberate, which will be handed out in the form of jury instructions. Jury instructions are the sole advice the jury should receive to keep them on track concerning the fundamental method of the deliberation and the content of the law on which their judgment is based.

After the trial, attorneys may give directions to the judge, typically trying to get precise wording. The court, however, has the last say on matters of substance and wording. Instructions to the jury should be precise and easy to follow for the ordinary person, accurate in their articulation of the law, and free of any potential misinterpretation or conjecture.

It is crucial for an attorney to properly maintain their opposition to the jury instructions if they believe it is irrelevant, erroneous, or misleading. After jury instructions have been given, if the judge discovers an error, they must make an instant, automatic correction. If the judge changes the instructions, the jury should be told to disregard the old ones before deciding.

Overly wordy instructions that muddled the jury’s understanding were a common cause of successful appeals in the past. For an appeal to be upheld, it must be shown that there were flaws in the jury instructions that were not minor and contributed to a skewed trial.

Civil or criminal jury instructions were approved by the state court, bench committee, or bar body. Courts typically use them since they simplify writing jury instructions and, in principle, don’t include errors. A judge is not bound by model, standard, or pattern guidelines and may amend them as needed. If model jury instructions exist, the court will reject the parties’ proposed instructions to avoid bias or manipulation.

Rule 2.1050: California Rules of Court

The Judicial Council of California has the final say over which jury instructions may be used in courtrooms across the state. These instructions provide uniform guidance for jurors that correctly states the law in language that the ordinary person may comprehend.

Preciseness

The Judicial Council approves these guidelines and takes great care to ensure that the law is appropriately reflected in them. However, it is the responsibility of the California Legislature and the Courts of Review to define and clarify the state’s legal norms.

Public Access

On the California Courts website, the Judicial Council must provide copies of the approved jury instructions and any modifications to those instructions. As provided in this section, the Judicial Council wishes the instructions publicly accessible for use and copying by the parties, lawyers, and the public. The Judicial Council may arrange to print and make the rules available online with a recognized publisher. The Judicial Council may take whatever measures it deems necessary to prevent commercial publishers from publishing its instructions without consent. These procedures may include requiring publishers to correctly publish the Judicial Council’s instructions, properly attribute the instructions to the Judicial Council as the source, and refrain from claiming copyright. Commercial publishers may have to pay the Judicial Council a fee or royalties to use the instructions in their publications. In the context of this guideline, the term “commercial publishers” refers to any organization that prints books to sell them to the general public.

Changes and updates

Through its advisory panels on jury instructions, the Judicial Council will ensure that its instructions are always up to date and maintained. Before these guidelines are officially published, they will be revised and made available for public review. Judges and lawyers on the bench may propose to the advisory committees for new or revised instructions and justifications for any suggested changes. The Judicial Council of California, Legal Services, is the proper contact for suggestions.

Implementation of Guidelines

Applying the Judicial Council’s guidelines is highly suggested. Suppose the trial judge determines that the jury should be instructed on a particular issue, and the issue is covered in the most recent edition of the jury instructions approved by the Judicial Council. In that case, the judge is encouraged to use the Judicial Council instruction unless the judge determines that a different instruction would more accurately state the law and be understood by the jury. Any instruction the trial judge deems necessary to the jury must be accurate, brief, understandable, impartial, and free from argument. If it is not included in the most recent edition of the Judicial Council jury instructions or if a Judicial Council instruction cannot be modified to submit the issue properly.

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