Regulating Decision Effects of Legally Sufficient Jury Instructions
19 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2000
The essay is in large part a response to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Weeks v. Angelone as well as a response to two recent empirical studies in law reviews addressing issues of ineffective jury instructions. I use these three sources to address a long-standing problem that empirical research in recent years has made quite clear: jury instructions can have unintended consequences that undermine their purpose even when their language is formally accurate. Jurors misinterpret charges, sometimes to the point of applying an understanding that contradicts the instruction, despite the fact that courts have approved the instructions as legally sufficient. Yet, as Weeks shows, prevailing standards of review ignore this problem. The typical scholarly response is represented in these two (very good) recent articles: researchers gather empirical evidence of juror misunderstanding and urge courts to adopt a better, clearer instruction.
This essay proposes instead a two-pronged systemic response that would improve the evolution and development of criminal instructions. It argues for (1) building on established but under-utilized standards of review that stress juror understanding and (2) adopting a new criminal procedure rule requiring trial judges to use the defendant's suggested instruction in a critical subset of jury charges. The essay defends these ideas-and situates the two recent studies-in the larger context of recent scholarship building on cognitive science and behavioral theory.
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