Making jury instructions more clear

By Krystal Allan - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The state supreme court has ordered a commission to study whether jury instructions need to be made more clear. In an order from Chief Justice James Smith on Tuesday, the commission was asked to study whether state courts should use what's called "plain language instructions."

The instructions are intended to provide clearer guidance to jurors regarding the law and how it should be applied during a trial, but is it really necessary? Attorneys say the objective isn't a bad one.

"I think it's admirable that the chief justice wants to at least appoint a commission to study it," says Gulfport Defense Attorney Felicia Dunn-Burkes.

But, are changes to jury instructions really necessary?

"From our perspective, our office, we haven't seen a real need to change, to re-invent the wheel because it works," says Assistant District Attorney Chris Schmidt.

Jury instructions might work as they are, but according to Chief Justice James W. Smith, they could work much better. In the court order forming the commission, he said a total revision is long overdue. Some attorneys, however, say their experiences haven't led them to that conclusion.

"I've not heard of very many instances or any instance at all where jurors were not able to reach a verdict in either criminal or civil case because they didn't understand the jury instructions," says Dunn-Burkes.

Both Dunn-Burkes and Schmidt say the commission will face some challenges in making existing language more plain.

"Take into consideration the possibility that jurors may find this approach to be insulting," says Dunn-Burkes.

"They would have to take existing law that exist from our court and our legislature and re-state the law in a simpler term without changing it," says Schmidt.

Changes in the language could go something like this:

  • before the changes - 'proof beyond a reasonable doubt'
  • after the changes - 'proof that leaves you with an abiding conviction that the charge is true'

Despite concerns, plain language instructions seem to be working in other states, including California. After some civil trials, jurors have been asked to offer feedback regarding the new plain language.

"Those non-scientific juror comments or surveys seem to indicate that jurors do find the plain language jury instructions easier to work with," says Dunn-Burkes.

No matter where they stand on the issue, in the end, Dunn-Burkes says they all stand for one basic goal.

"To make the justice system on both civil and the criminal side open and accessible and comprehensible to all Mississippians."

The court order assigning the commission does not set a timeline for completion of the study or recommendations. The commission is made up of 21 people, including trial judges and appellate judges, lawyers, law professors and lay persons.