Jury Instructions

Published: 07th June 2006
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Jury Instructions

Jury instructions are the judge's directions to the jury before it begins deliberations regarding the factual questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply. Although the court has discretion to give instructions at the beginning of trial, it is customary to give the instructions after closing argument.

Jury instructions tell the jury what the laws are that govern a particular case. Jury instructions include defining the elements of the charge offense defining the burden of proof. Each attorney gives the judge a set of proposed jury instructions. The judge considers each instruction and gives the ones that properly states the law that applies to the case. The jurors must accept and follow the law as instructed by the judge.

The most commonly used jury instructions in California are the CALJIC instructions. CALJIC stands for "California Jury Instructions-Criminal." These instructions have recently undergone a change to make them more understandable to the average juror. An example of the new jury instruction for murder reads:

"A decision to kill made rashly, impulsively or without careful consideration of the choice and its consequences is not deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, a cold, calculated decision to kill can be reached quickly."

Compare this to the old jury instruction for murder:

"A cold, calculated judgment and decision may be arrived at in a short period of time, but a mere unconsidered and rash impulse, even though it includes an intent to kill, is not deliberation and premeditation as will fix an unlawful killing as murder of the first degree."

The court has the primary duty to help the jury understand the legal principles it is asked to apply. The jury is allowed to ask for additional explanations regarding the meaning of a jury instruction.

However, CALJIC jury instructions are not always on point enough to a given case. Where additional instructions are required, lawyers are allowed to submit customized, also known as "pinpoint" jury instructions. Pinpoint instructions go the crux of a defendant's case and better illustrate for the jury the particular relevant legal issues.

The court has set forth a number of qualifications concerning pinpoint instructions. First, the instruction cannot be simply duplicative of other instructions already given. Second, the instruction cannot be argumentative, meaning that the instruction must relate to principles of law as opposed to instructions which argue specific facts.

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