Archive for November, 2012

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Why Are Jury Instructions Important?

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Jury instructions are important for several reasons.  The primary reason is they lay out the applicable law for jurors to follow.  Without jury instructions, the jury would not know the elements of a DUI or Robbery charge.  Jurors would not have the definition of “reasonable doubt”, or “constructive possession”, or any definition for that matter.  They may forget who carries the burden in a criminal case and they certainly wouldn’t deliberate lesser-included offenses unless they were instructed on what the lesser-included offenses were.  Juries would find it difficult to render a lawful verdict if they were not provided with jury instructions.

Second, they are important for record-keeping matters on appeal.  If a Defendant is found guilty and wants to appeal a faulty jury instruction, he/she will need to show the appellate court the instruction read at trial.  That is why jury instructions are typed and printed and placed in the court file.  It is important for judges, when reading the jury instructions to the jury, to not stray or vary  or “go off-script” to the the agreed-upon instructions.  (The two sides agreed to the instructions for a reason, right?)

Imagine the panic if a defendant charged with murder went to trial and the jury instructions all related to the misdemeanor charge of battery.  It can be very important to get the charge right.  Sounds easy, right?  It can be.  But errors certainly happen.  Case in point, Ireland v. State.

In the Ireland case, the Defendant went to trial on the charges of attempted 1st-degree murder and kidnapping.  A jury found him guilty of attempted 2nd-degree murder and kidnapping.  The problem?  Instead of being read the charge of attempted 2nd-degree murder, they were read an instruction on attempted manslaughter (a completely different crime than attempted 2nd-degree murder).

Why it matters?  Now, the case will go back down to the trial court, where he will presumably be retried on the 2nd-degree murder charge.  Think of all the expense, frustration and resources that could have been avoided had the jury instructions been correct.

That’s an important reason why jury instructions are important!

Additional Reading Material

In case you’re still not convinced, here are some articles on the importance of jury instructions:

The Importance of Jury Instructions, by Timothy Barber

Yes, even Wikipedia has a page on jury instructions

Jury Charges: The Beginning and End of All Trials, by Michael J. Warshauer

To view some of Florida’s Standard Jury Instructions for Criminal Cases, go here.  Feel free to click on a few of the links on the left to read through instructions that are read to Florida juries.

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Disclaimer: This post is not intended as legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

~At Matthews Law Firm, P.A., we practice criminal defense & health law.  Our offices are in Bartow, Florida and we offer free consultations.  We are currently accepting cases throughout central Florida.~

 

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