The legal system is complex and it requires a specialized knowledge to fully understand the procedures, precedents and laws that may be applicable in a criminal case. Yet civilian jurors are expected to determine whether or not someone is guilty of a crime under our criminal justice system. That’s why judges are so important -they are supposed to understand and apply the applicable laws and precedents that may be applicable in a specific criminal case. This is why judges provide jurors with a set of jury instructions before the jury goes into deliberations; so they know how to apply the facts of the case to the applicable laws.
What are Common Jury Instructions?
Specific jury instructions will vary based on the unique facts of a case, but before deliberations, the judge will typically advise the jurors regarding the issues at play in the case. He will also explain what facts are in dispute and which are not relevant to the matter at hand.
He will usually go on to define any words or concepts jurors may not be familiar with and then explain that because the matter is being addressed in a criminal court, that a defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or be found not guilty.
Judges will also advise the jury that it is their job, and their job alone, to determine the facts of the case, based on the credibility of the witnesses and evidence that was presented to them, and not based on emotions. The verdict should also be based on the actual law, not how the jurors believe the law should be written.
More Specific Types of Jury Instructions
There are also something called “pinpoint instructions,” which are special instructions the prosecution or defense can ask the judge to give to advance their side of the case. Case law interpretation may make a defense argument the law, so judges are entitled to instruct the jury beyond the standard jury instructions. Courts in California use a set of standard jury instructions called CalCrim but there are situations where even these instructions don’t go far enough in explaining a particular defense so a defense lawyer may ask for a more individualized pinpoint instruction.
Do Jury Instructions Really Matter?
Absolutely. For one thing, it’s important that the jury fully understand the applicable laws in a case and their role in the state courts system. When jurors ignore their instructions, this may be a type of juror misconduct, and sometimes jurors intentionally ignore instructions as a form of jury nullification.
But a judge’s instructions to the jury can also result in the miscarriage of justice if he provides an improper instruction, whether that means telling the jury to ignore what is absolutely relevant evidence, or if the judge provides improper information about the law.
As an example, if a judge left out the fact that for someone to be convicted of a felony-level theft offense the defendant must have taken over $950 worth of goods, then the defendant could be convicted of a felony even if the jury only believed she took $750 worth of goods, meaning she should have been found guilty of a misdemeanor.
When a judge provides improper instructions to the jury, it could provide grounds for an appeal. If the appeal is successful, the appellate court may rule that the defendant should be given another trial, be resentenced to a lower sentence that involves less time in jail or prison, or should even be released without further delay.
Choose the Right Defense Attorney
Unfortunately, once a judge has provided a jury with jury instructions, it is too late to change the outcome of a trial without an appeal. But a good criminal lawyer can help bring the judge’s attention to the proper legal issues, including applicable precedents and law, during the trial. Additionally, a strong defense could help you get a plea bargain that will dramatically reduce the charges against you and result in your being able to avoid going to trial altogether.
If you have been accused of any crime, be sure to start working with a top defense lawyer from the start. Peter M. Liss has 35 years of experience and he can help you no matter what criminal offenses you have been charged with. Please contact his offices by calling (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 as soon as possible.