Jury instructions are the set of legal rules that jurors should follow when the jury is deciding a civil or criminal case. Jury instructions are given to the jury by the judge, who usually reads them aloud to the jury. They are often the subject of discussion by attorneys on both sides in the case and the judge in order to make sure their interests are represented and nothing prejudicial is said.
Under the American judicial system, juries are the trier of fact when they serve in a trial. In other words, it is their job to sort through disputed accounts presented in evidence. The judge decides questions of law, meaning he or she decides how the law applies to a given set of facts. The jury instructions provide something of a flow chart on what verdict jurors should deliver based on what they determine to be true. Put another way, "If you believe A (set of facts), you must find X (verdict). If you believe B (set of facts), you must find Y (verdict)."
Forty-eight states (Texas and West Virginia are the exceptions) have a basic set of instructions, usually called "pattern jury instructions", which provide the framework for the charge to the jury; sometimes, only names and circumstances have to be filled in for a particular case. Often they are much more complex, although certain elements frequently recur. For instance, if a criminal defendant chooses not to testify, the jury will be instructed not to draw any conclusions from that decision.
Several studies have discovered that subjects who received no jury instructions comprehended the law better than subjects who received pattern instructions. Jurors retain low comprehension of the most fundamental aspects of their roles. For instance, scholarly studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that jurors conflate reasonable doubt with the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence.
In one study, citizens willing to impose the death penalty were presented in 2 experiments with 4 sets of instructions (i.e., baseline instructions, instructions used at trial, instructions revised according to Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution holdings, and model instructions written in nontechnical language). Results demonstrated high confusion with the trial instructions, little improvement with revised instructions, significant but case-specific improvements with model instructions, and a strong relationship between miscomprehension and willingness to impose death.
In California, jury instructions were simplified to make them easier for jurors to understand. The courts moved cautiously because, although verdicts are rarely overturned due to jury instructions in civil court, this is not the case in criminal court. For example, the old instructions on burden of proof read:
The new instructions read:
Jury nullification instructions
In one study, results gathered from 144 six-person juries indicated that when juries are in receipt of jury nullification information from the judge or defense attorney they are more likely to acquit a sympathetic defendant and judge a dangerous defendant more harshly than when such information is not present or when challenges are made to nullification arguments. In another study, three nullification instructions varying in explicitness as to nullification were combined with three criminal cases to yield a 3×3 factorial design. Forty-five six-person juries (270 subjects) were randomly assigned to the nine experimental groups. The results showed that juries given explicit nullification instructions were more likely to vote guilty in a drunk driving case, but less likely to do so in a euthanasia case. The third case, which dealt with murder, did not show any differences due to instructions.
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