Plain Meaning, Practical Reason and Culpability: Toward a Theory of Jury Interpretation of Criminal Statutes

Posted: 14 Nov 1997

See all articles by Darryl K. Brown

Darryl K. Brown

University of Virginia School of Law

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: November 1997


The modern criminal jury, having lost its authority to judge the law, now is used for two tasks: finding facts and applying law announced by the judge. Both typical jury instructions and outside assessments of jury verdicts (scholarly, judicial, popular) implicitly assume that law application is a mechanical, literal task. Juries are usually told no more than to "apply the law," and they are often faulted when their verdicts seem to reflect something other than plain-meaning application. Yet the voluminous literature on judicial statutory interpretation describes a complicated process for which there are a range of considerations and interpretive methods.

A prominent portion of the scholarly opinion on statutory interpretation insists that a range of substantive concerns -- public values, changes in application context and statutory purpose, coherence with other statutes as well as plain meaning and legislative intent--legitimately play a role in statutory construction and are integrated in a process of practical reason. Criminal law adds a distinct twist to statute application problems because guilty verdicts are normative judgments about the defendant's conduct, quality of moral judgment, and, ultimately, character. That individualized, normative inquiry cannot be accomplished by rote application of criminal law's conduct rules; it requires context-specific interpretation of its decision rules.

This article examines how juries go about their task of statutory interpretation and, through it, moral assessment of the defendant's character. Using recorded jury deliberations from two trials (one real and one a mock trial given to eight mock juries), the article uses the conceptual tools of statutory interpretation scholarship, supplemented by empirical studies of jury decision making, to build a descriptive theory of how juries interpret statutes. It finds their substantive considerations, interpretive strategies (they are surprisingly predisposed to plain-meaning applications), and occasional errors or biases to compare favorably with judicial interpretation. From these findings it suggests implications for criminal law's goal of moral assessment and, more practically, for revision of jury instructions, such as development of canons of statutory construction for juries.

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Brown, Darryl K., Plain Meaning, Practical Reason and Culpability: Toward a Theory of Jury Interpretation of Criminal Statutes (November 1997). Available at SSRN:

Darryl K. Brown (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics