The Judge’s Instructions

the Judge’s instructions One of the most important rituals in any trial is the judge’s instructions to the jury. It is through these instruc- tions that juries are educated about relevant legal concepts, informed of the verdict options, admonished to disregard extralegal factors, and ad- vised on how to conduct their delib- erations. To make verdicts adhere to the law, juries are supposed to com- ply with these instructions. The task seems simple enough, but there are problems.


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To begin with, the jury’s intel- lectual competence has been called into question. For years, the courts have doubted whether jurors under- stood their instructions. One skep- tical judge put it bluntly when he said that “these words may as well be spoken in a foreign language”. He may have been right. When actual instructions are tested with community mock jurors, the results reveal high levels of misunderstanding—a serious problem in light of the fact that jurors seem to have many preconcep- tions about crimes and the requirements of the law. There is, however, reason for hope. Research has shown that when conventional instructions—which are poorly structured, esoteric, and filled with complex legal terms—are rewritten in plain English, comprehension rates increase markedly. Supplementing a judge’s instructions with flowcharts, computer animations, and other audiovisual aids is also effective.

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