I came across a new proposed jury instruction last week. It is a defense proposal to instruct the jury on how to view any admissions the accused verbally made, usually to police officers, regarding the alleged crime. Most often, admissions of guilt or confessions. As a reminder, the jury determines the facts of the case based on the evidence presented during trial. They then apply the law based on their jury instructions. That is how they reach their verdict. So the exact wording of each jury instruction is very important. Here is the actual wording:
“Testimony regarding the oral admissions or statements of the defendant unfavorable to his interest are to be viewed with caution, for he himself may have been misinformed, or may not have clearly expressed the meaning, or the witness may have misunderstood him, or it may be that the witness who testifies to the admission, by intentionally or inadvertently altering a few of the expressions really used, gives an effect to the statement completely at variance with what he did actually say. On the other hand, if you can say from the evidence that the alleged admissions were clearly and understandingly made by the defendant, that they are precisely identified, and that the language is correctly remembered and accurately reported by the witness, you are authorized to consider such admissions for what you deem them to be worth against his making them, but in reaching such a result you must, for the reasons given, proceed with caution.”
A lot of ideas to throw at the jury to discount an admission:
He may be mistaken.
He may not be clear in how he speaks.
He may have been misunderstood.
The witness could change what he said on purpose (be lying).
The witness could change what he said on accident (maybe forgot).
These changes could make the witness misstate the admission.
So if and only if:
The defendant was clear.
The defendant understood what he was saying.
The witness is precise in repeating the statements.
The witness remembers correctly.
The witness reports what was said accurately.
Then and only then, you may take them for what they are worth (hint hint – they are not worth much!)
I would venture to guess that most people reading this jury instruction, if they can get through the labyrinth, would emerge feeling they had been fed a reasonable doubt as to whether they can rely on a confession to convict.