The Importance of Jury Instructions in a Criminal Case

I am currently working on a federal criminal appeal that will go to the lovely building a few blocks away that houses the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit here in downtown Atlanta. The appeal involves a “jury instruction”, which means the rules of law that the trial judge provides to jurors at the end of a trial to assist the jury in deciding whether the prosecutor has, or has not, proven that the Defendant is guilty as charged.  Working on this appeal caused me to think back about how I learned of the importance of jury instructions in a federal criminal case.

My interest in federal criminal cases began when I “clerked” for a couple of federal judges directly out of law school.  A federal judicial clerkship is a great job, you work for the Judge, and help him or her with research, writing opinions and anything else the the Judge wants you to do.  You also get to see lots of cases up close, and after a while you start to realize that you might actually be able to do as well, if not better, than some of the lawyers who have cases in front of your Judge.  Along the way, you learn a whole lot more “law” than they ever taught in Law School.

Judge K was the first one for whom I clerked.  He was great, let me sit in on anything and basically gave me a tutorial on what was happening in real time: “Paul, this lawyer is trying to protect the record, while this other lawyer is trying to get me to make a mistake for a possible appeal”, and the like.  Judge K also knew I was interested in possibly becoming a federal criminal defense lawyer, so he let me sit in on just about every trial of that sort.

I started to learn the importance of jury instructions when clerking.  For starters, the Judge told the jurors that he was the person who explained the law, not the lawyers, not the witnesses.  Jurors almost always are very impressed with Judges, and take it very seriously when a Judge tells them what is, and what is not, the law that applies to a case.  So, because the “law” comes from such a well-respected person (in the jury’s eyes, anyway), a lawyer gets a leg up on his or her competition if the attorney can get the Judge to give a legal instruction that favors that lawyer’s side of the case.

However, as time went by, I began to realize that criminal defense lawyers have an additional way to look at jury instructions.  As I have discussed other places, a criminal appeal is usually not a process for re-arguing whether the Defendant is or is not guilty.  Instead, an appeal is focused on whether there was an “error” in the process that led to the Defendant being found guilty.  As time passed, I began to recognize that when appealing after a conviction in a criminal case, many of the Judge’s ruling are almost impossible to overturn.  Over the years, the courts have created an ever-widening group of decisions that are left to the trial Judge’s “discretion”, meaning that even a mistake is likely not going to result in overturning the case. A jury instruction, on the other hand, is “pure law”, and if a Judge makes a mistake about an instruction, there is a better chance to obtain a reversal than when challenging one of the more discretionary aspects of what the Judge did or did not do during the trial.

Jury instructions are important at the trial of a federal criminal case.  They also can be important if the Defendant is found guilty, for a mistake when describing the “law” could result in a reversal of the convictions.  Now, back to work on the current matter.