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Jury Instructions – What You Should Know


If you think that competitive eating is impressive, try watching a competitive memorization tournament.  It’s amazing that competitive eaters can fit so much food in their stomachs, but it is equally impressive that competitive memorizers can fit so much information in their brains.  Competitive memorizers do not have a superhuman ability to memorize; being able to recall a large volume of information from memory is a skill that anyone can learn.  If you are looking for an inexpensive hobby, you could do worse than trying to memorize the names of all the countries in the world and their capitals.  To do that, you just have to visualize the map with all the place names on it; if you are Generation X, then the mental image associated with this either comes from the “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” computer game, or else from an Animaniacs sketch.  If you are trying to memorize a long text made of complete sentences, though, you will have to borrow a page from the playbook of the ancient bards.  Poets in ancient Greece used to recite the Iliad and the Odyssey from memory, and they did this by memorizing the templates around which the poem is structured, such as its rhythm, lists, frequently recurring phrases, and familiar sequence of important events.  By this logic, it is theoretically possible to memorize an entire transcript of a criminal trial.  Trials follow a formula, but sometimes the most formulaic parts are the most important.  Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains the role of jury instructions in criminal trials.

Jury Instructions Are More Than Just Legal Boilerplate

All criminal trials contain the same elements, which occur in the same order:

  • Swearing in the jury
  • Opening arguments by the prosecution and defense
  • Presentation of evidence and examination and cross examination of witnesses
  • Closing arguments by the prosecution and defense
  • Jury instructions
  • Jury deliberation
  • Pronouncement of verdict

Besides the jurors’ oaths and the pronouncement of the verdict, the jury instructions are the most formulaic part of the trial.  The judge explains the definition of the charges the defendant is facing, to ensure that the jurors understand them, even though the prosecution and defense referred to them in their arguments.  The judge also explains the meaning of reasonable doubt and reminds the jurors that they must vote to acquit the defendant if they have reasonable doubt about whether the charges apply.  Florida has issued model jury instructions for every criminal charge.  Judges use these model jury instructions as a template, but in practice, they draft a unique set of jury instructions for each trial.  This enables judges to use their legal expertise to ensure that jurors understand their duties and can fulfill them properly.

A Plain Language Explanation of the Law or a Violation of the Right to a Fair Trial?

Explaining the legal issues that determine a defendant’s innocence or guilt in language that can be easily understood by people who do not have a professional background in law is an admirable goal indeed and serves the interest of justice.  There is sometimes room for debate, however, about whether the judge’s motivation in phrasing the jury instructions in a particular way has the effect of prejudicing the jury against the defendant.  Before reading the jury instructions to the jury, and often before the trial even begins, the judge must give the prosecutors and the defense lawyers the opportunity to review the jury instructions and suggest modifications to them.  Sometimes reaching an agreement about the text of the jury instructions takes a long time, as prosecutors and defense lawyers may disagree about which information to include and how to word it.

You Can Appeal an Unfair Verdict, No Matter What Caused It

The rule of no double jeopardy means that if a jury acquits a defendant, the acquittal is forever.  Defendants in criminal cases have the right to appeal their convictions if the conviction resulted from a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.  For example, you can appeal your conviction if you can argue that the case your lawyer presented established reasonable doubt, but the jury acted unreasonably by convicting you.  You can also appeal your conviction if you can present evidence that the jury instructions were unfair, either because they were misleading or because they showed bias toward the prosecution.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you exercise your right to a fair trial, including fair jury instructions.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.




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