Is Any of This Making Sense? Reflecting on Guilty Pleas to Aid Criminal Juror Comprehension

By Cronan, John P. | American Criminal Law Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Is Any of This Making Sense? Reflecting on Guilty Pleas to Aid Criminal Juror Comprehension


Cronan, John P., American Criminal Law Review


 
     INTRODUCTION                                                  1188 
  I. OVERVIEW OF CRIMINAL JURY INSTRUCTIONS                        1193 
 II. EXTENT OF JUROR CONFUSION                                     1196 
     A. Anecdotal Evidence of Juror Confusion                      1196 
     B. Empirical Research on Criminal Juror Confusion             1202 
     C. Causes of Juror Confusion                                  1208 
III. FLAWS WITH THE CURRENT STANDARD OF REVIEWING JURY 
     COMPREHENSION                                                 1212 
     A. The Current Standard of Reviewing Jury Comprehension       1212 
     B. Constitutional Concerns with the Low Standard              1214 
 IV. OBSTACLES TO REFORM                                           1216 
     A. Threat of Reversal on Appeal                               1216 
     B. Judicial Desire to Maintain the Status Quo                 1220 
     C. Lawyers' Resistance to Take the Lead                       1221 
  V. PROPOSAL FOR AMENDING FEDERAL RULE OF CRIMINAL 
     PROCEDURE 30                                                  1222 
     A. Reflection on the Standard for a Criminal Defendant's 
        Comprehension of a Guilty Plea                             1222 
     B. The Case for Analogous Standards for a Defendant's 
        Decision to Plead and Criminal Jury's Decision to Render 
        a Verdict                                                  1228 
     C. Proposal to Amend Rule 30                                  1231 
     D. How the Amended Rule 30 Would Function in Court            1233 
 VI. REFORMS THAT WOULD ENHANCE JUROR COMPREHENSION                1235 
     A. "Plain Language" Instructions                              1236 
     B. Furnish Jurors with Printed Copies of the Instructions 
        During Deliberations                                       1241 
     C. Invite Jurors to Ask Clarifying Questions (and Provide 
        Helpful Answers)                                           1244 
     D. Extensive Preliminary Instructions                         1248 
     E. Permit Juror Note-Taking                                   1250 
     F. "Cheat Sheet" for Reference During the Trial               1251 
     G. Incorporate Examples in the Instructions                   1252 
     H. Visual Assistance to Accompany the Instructions            1254 
     I. Allow Jurors to Read Along While Receiving Verbal Charge   1255 
     J. "Choice of Instruction" Rule                               1256 
     K. Special Instructions on Difficult Issues                   1257 
CONCLUSION                                                         1258 

INTRODUCTION

"The one thing an instruction must do above all else is correctly state the law. This is true regardless of who is capable of understanding it." (1)

The drafters of California's pattern criminal jury instructions made this stunning statement. The unfortunate truth is that jury instructions are written with almost no focus on comprehensibility of such instructions. (2) Another disheartening reality is that the effects of incomprehensible jury instructions are evident. A growing mountain of empirical research is concluding, with shocking accord, (3) that jurors retain alarmingly low comprehension of the most fundamental aspects of their roles. In fact, several studies have discovered that subjects who received no instructions comprehended the law better than subjects who received pattern instructions. (4) These findings call into question the very legitimacy of our criminal justice system. (5) Of greatest concern, scholarly studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that jurors conflate reasonable doubt with the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence. (6) The horrifying implication is that American juries may be depriving defendants of their fundamental due process right to have their guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt. …

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