Jury instructions are the set of legal rules that jurors ought follow when deciding a case. Jury instructions are given to the jury by the jury instructor, who usually reads them aloud to the jury. They are often the subject of discussion of the case, how they will decide who is guilty, and are given by the judge in order to make sure their interests are represented and nothing prejudicial is said.
Under the American judicial system, juries are often 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)." Jury instructions can also serve an important role in guiding the jury how to consider certain evidence.
Forty-eight states (Texas and West Virginia are the exceptions) have a model 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 often be instructed not to draw any negative conclusions from that decision. Many jurisdictions are now instructing jurors not to communicate about the case through social networking services like Facebook and Twitter.
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 two experiments with four 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 in civil cases read:
Preponderance of the evidence means evidence that has more convincing force than that opposed to it. If the evidence is so evenly balanced that you are unable to say that the evidence on either side of an issue preponderates, your finding on that issue must be against the party who had the burden of proving it.
The new instructions read:
When I tell you that a party must prove something, I mean that the party must persuade you, by the evidence presented in court, that what he or she is trying to prove is more likely to be true than not true. This is sometimes referred to as 'the burden of proof.'
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.
It has been argued that by effectively and persistently offering juries instructions that cannot be understood, judges regularly nullify the law.
Instructions permitting jury nullification has sometimes been criticized as promoting chaos, in that it "conveys an implied approval that runs the risk of degrading the legal structure requisite for true freedom, for an ordered liberty that protects against anarchy as well as tyranny." A rebuttal to this is that a jury instruction about jury nullification "would transform the judicial process by providing a more rational basis for jury deliberation and decision making. In particular, it would allow jury deliberation to be an open process in which extrajudicial biases are aired and confronted. Further, those communities whose members are increasingly estranged from the criminal justice system's decision-making process will benefit indirectly from greater participation and, in turn, from power over the kinds of cases prosecuted. In sum, contrary to the argument that a nullification charge is an invitation to anarchy, such a charge could help to control the anarchy that has already gripped much of the system."
- Overview - Federal Jury Instructions & Federal Evidence
- Ensuring An Impartial Jury In The Age Of Social Media, Duke Law and Technology Review (2012), http://dukedltr.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/stevefinal_31.pdf
- John P. Cronan (2002), Is Any of This Making Sense? Reflecting on Guilty Pleas to Aid Criminal Juror Comprehension, 39, American Criminal Law Review
- Wiener, Richard L.; Pritchard, Christine C.; Weston, Minda (August 1995), "Comprehensibility of approved jury instructions in capital murder cases", Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, 80 (4): 455–467, doi:10.1037/0021-9010.80.4.455
- Spelling It Out in Plain English
- Irwin A. Horowitz (December 1988), The impact of judicial instructions, arguments, and challenges on jury decision making, 12 (4), Law and Human Behavior, ISSN 0147-7307
- Irwin A. Horowitz (March 1985), The effect of jury nullification instruction on verdicts and jury functioning in criminal trials, 9 (1), Law and Human Behavior, ISSN 0147-7307
- Saks, Michael J. (1992–1993), Judicial Nullification, 68, Ind. L. J., p. 1281
- David N. Dorfman (1995), Fictions, Fault, and Forgiveness: Jury Nullification in a New Context
- Federal Jury Instruction Resource Page Collecting model or pattern federal civil and criminal jury instructions for trial courts by jurisdiction (where available) and subject matter.
- Jury Instructions in Insurance-Coverage and Insurance Bad-Faith Cases[dead link]
- Sample California Civil Jury Instructions
- Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions, 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.