Countless legal scholars, law professors, attorneys, and social science researchers have discussed the inadequacy of jury instructions and the issues that poorly written instructions can lead to. If we want jurors to be the common woman or man shouldn’t we make the instructions on how to make decisions common as well? If we want jurors to base their decisions on common sense, life experiences, and the evidence presented in the case rather than their knowledge of the law, then we should equip them to have the bare minimum foundation of legal know-how to render a verdict.
Confusing or lengthy jury instructions can create jury verdicts that are not what the jury intended. A jury misunderstanding or not being able to decipher instructions can lead to wrongful convictions, and misidentification by eyewitnesses is by far the leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to nearly 75% of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court disseminated new jury instructions aimed at reducing the likelihood of wrongful convictions based on misidentification. The court fashioned this instruction with more than thirty years of scientific research as a foundation and explicitly tells the jurors that science supports the instructions. The instructions attempt to explain the way memory works and how it can affect the reliability of eyewitness identifications. This groundbreaking jury instruction has the potential to solve one of the issues that faulty jury instructions create. By being honest about what jurors can use certain testimony for and more specifically the advantages and disadvantages associated with certain kinds of evidence, a jury will be better equipped to make a just decision.
Jury instructions can be poorly written in terms of the complicated language used or they can be poorly written grammatically so that the organization of the sentences and paragraphs can lead anyone’s head spinning. The lack of desire on the part of lawyers, judges, and the justice system as a whole to rewrite jury instructions so that jurors have an improved understanding can also create the environment for mistaken damage awards, a loss of justice when someone is acquitted who should not have been, resentment on the part of jurors for being forced to comprehend the incomprehensible, jurors feeling helpless in the task that is presented to them, and a lack of trust and confidence in the legal system as a whole if it cannot do something as simple as instruct a jury on what the law is and what decision they should be making.
Another case that has been in the news recently dealing with jurors not understanding the law and the instructions given to them is the George Zimmerman trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. One juror stated that she believed George Zimmerman was guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, but thought she couldn’t convict him on anything unless he had the intent to kill before leaving his home that night. The jury instruction on manslaughter specifically stated it is not necessary for the State to prove that George Zimmerman had an intent to cause death, only an intent to commit an act. Had the prosecution or judge attempted to clarify these instructions to allow for a non-lawyer to understand it, Zimmerman may have been convicted and the media sensation that surrounded this case may have been lessened.
Courts across this nation need to take a long hard look at what they are asking of jurors and the words they are using to ask them to do that. If it takes law students three years to be able to comprehend what the law is all about, how can we expect six or twelve people who may have just stepped into a courtroom for the first time to absorb, evaluate, and critically follow that same law? More courts need to start taking notice of the social science research and recommendations being made by law professors and make some improvements either in terms of simple language and clearer construction of written and oral instructions, and taking the time to give the jurors all the tools necessary in those instructions to critically evaluate evidence and utilize it in the best way possible to reach a decision.