“Jurors must decide cases based on the laws as they are
and not as the jurors might like them to be.”
This quote from the Montgomery County’s Court of Common Pleas’ website nicely summarizes how juries are supposed to decide cases. Jurors must put aside their feelings and follow the law as explained by the judge, even if the law dictates a result that conflicts with their preferred outcome. Because many lawyers are skeptical about whether this actually happens, we are often asked, “Do juries really follow jury instructions?”
The answer is a qualified yes. In my experience, jurors know they are bound by jury instructions and, even if the instructions dictate a result contrary to their preference, they will follow them. For example, I interviewed jurors after a toxic contamination case in New England a few years ago. They described using a large whiteboard to actually diagram the sentences of the instructions they had been given in order to understand what the law required. In the end, even though a majority of the jurors truly wanted to vote in favor of the defense, they felt that the instructions precluded this, so they returned a large verdict for the plaintiffs.
However, this example also shows that jurors may try to manipulate the instructions to reach a desired verdict. In other words, while I have never really seen a case where jurors ignored the instructions outright, I have seen many instances where jurors attempt to stretch the meaning of instructions, or to elevate some instructions to greater importance than others, in order to achieve the result they think is proper. Indeed, in the example above, the jurors’ painstaking analysis of their instructions appeared to be an attempt to carefully explore every phrase for a loophole that would allow them to vote for the defense.
Thus, the answer is, yes, jurors follow jury instructions, but that does not mean that they do so dispassionately or without reference to the outcome they want. Just as lawyers preparing for trial will argue for the inclusion of those instructions that are most favorable for their case, jurors in the jury room often try to use instructions to advocate for the result they want. A perfect example is the burden of proof instruction. Generally, this is not the subject of much discussion. However, during deliberations in mock trials, we have seen many defense-oriented jurors become staunch advocates for holding plaintiffs to their burden when they can’t refute facts that support the plaintiffs’ side of the case. “Yes,” they’ll concede, “that may be true, but it’s just not enough to meet the burden of proof.” Or they’ll argue, “I can’t say either side is right, but plaintiff has the burden of proof so they lose if it’s a draw.”
The bottom line is that jurors do use jury instructions to decide cases. Knowing this, attorneys can help themselves by making sure they present jurors with clear explanations and interpretations of these instructions that best serve their case.
Practical Jury Instruction Takeaways
- Jury Instructions Are Important. While jurors will interpret the instructions through the prism of their own desired outcome, the instructions will nonetheless provide the framework for jury deliberations. What’s more, arming your jurors (those advocating your point of view in the jury room ) with the right instructions can provide them with critical tools to make your case. Successfully arguing that “the law requires” a particular result with respect to evaluation of evidence or the ultimate verdict is a very effective way to persuade fellow jurors.
- Teach the Instructions. The previous point highlights the importance of having the right instructions before the jury. However, having the judge give an instruction is only half the battle. To effectively use them, jurors need to have the pertinent instructions highlighted and explained. We recommend that, as early as opening statement (if feasible), you identify important instructions, tell jurors what pieces of evidence relate to these instructions and how these instructions dictate the decisions they must make. The better able your jurors are to make your argument using the actual instructions, the stronger they will be as advocates for your case.
- Provide the Instructions. Although this is not always permitted, when instructions are helpful to your case, try to ensure that a written copy is given to the jury. Most jurors try very hard to do what the judge instructs them to do. However, it is hard to imagine that the average juror gleans much from hearing dozens of instructions read at the close of the trial. In addition, it helps jurors argue their positions if they can point directly to the language of a particular instruction.
- Use the Instructions to Structure Your Case. I am a huge advocate of structuring cases, from the beginning, around the jury instructions that are likely to be given. If the jury instructions are used as the framework for the case presentation, jurors will be better able to organize and keep track of the evidence presented to them, and to match that evidence up with the court’s instructions. For example, they will be better equipped to know what evidence is important to establishing (or refuting) the existence of elements in the various causes of action if this is the way the evidence has been presented to them. In addition, if your opponent has not presented the evidence in this manner, it will be more difficult for his juror advocates to marshal arguments in opposition.
By: Patricia Steele, J.D. – Senior Consultant