JURY INSTRUCTIONS

A little-known fact that disconcerts a lot of new jury members is that they do not get their jury instructions on the law until AFTER the trial is concluded.  A potential jury member was complaining about this to the judge, who explained the following.

“If we instructed you on the law before you listened to the witnesses and saw the exhibits and determined the facts, there is a danger that you would be biased by your foreknowledge of the law.  You would have a preconceived mental framework with boxes to check off, and you may unwittingly seek out information to be able to check off those boxes.  And that could prejudice the defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence.

“What you are to do instead is first, with a completely open mind, listen to the testimony, consider the credibility of each witness, and the weight to give them, review all admitted exhibits, and listen to counsel’s arguments.  Once the trial is over, I will instruct you on the law with a set of jury instructions that you will take with you to the jury room.

“This may not seem intuitive, but we are asking you to apply the law to the facts that you determine, and not the reverse.  We are not asking you to apply the facts to the law.  And that is why we start with the facts of the case, and end with the law.  As jurors during your deliberations, determine what you decide was proven beyond a reasonable doubt as the facts surrounding the incident, and then apply the law as you are instructed.”

The next question, which is hard to answer because it must be answered blindly: “Will you as a jury member have any trouble applying the law to the facts, if it turns out, after trial, that you discover the law if not what you thought it was or what you think it ought to be?”

I have heard a few prospective jurors just answer, “I don’t know – it depends on what the law is!”  And they are frequently struck from the jury.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could strike other people from decision-making power based on their biases?