Judges Talking to Jurors in Criminal Cases: Why U.S. Judges Do it so Differently from Just About Everyone Else
64 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2013
Date Written: September 12, 2013
Finally, the evidence has all been heard, the lawyers have given closing arguments to the jurors, and now it is up to the trial judge; it is her turn. Of course, she will instruct the jury on the law, no question about that. But this was a very lengthy multiple defendant trial. That experienced, savvy trial judge is no doubt tempted to go beyond stating to the jurors the mere legal rules (the usual jury instructions). She might also prefer to talk with them about the evidence: comment on particular items, summarize the overall evidence and the arguments put forth by the lawyers on both sides. After all, we all want to be certain that these lay people understand just what this case was all about. And who better to tell them about the evidence than the judge? If this judge sits in the United States, she had better resist that temptation. Otherwise, she is very likely to be reversed on appeal, perhaps even disciplined. But, elsewhere in the common law world, that judge would not be at all concerned about going beyond the giving of jury instructions. In fact, if she does not, she is likely to be reversed on appeal, perhaps even disciplined.
Why the difference between U.S. judges and judges from other common law based nations, with similar roots in the English criminal justice system? Are Americans really that different from their English-speaking cousins on this point? What explains that difference? And which nation gets it right? Those are the questions I attempt to answer in this article.
To do so, I take an unconventional approach. I discuss the well-established legal principles one finds in cases, statutes, and rules in the five focal nations of Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and the United States. In my research, however, I sought to go beyond this, to find out the way in which the practice really occurs. In short, I was trying to determine whether the trial judges truly acted so very differently in the various nations. I was in touch with more than eighty individuals in these five nations. Most I knew; all were experienced in the world of criminal justice, as trial or appeals judges (state or federal), prosecution or defense lawyers, or academics who either left the practice or studied it carefully. I met with them, or spoke with them on the phone, or corresponded with them, or exchanged email messages. This article lays out the surprising answers to the questions I asked these individuals on the practice of instructing jurors.
Keywords: criminal procedure, comparative criminal justice, jury instructions
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