U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

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

NCJ Number
American Criminal Law Review Volume: 39 Issue: 3 Dated: Summer 2002 Pages: 1187-1259
John P. Cronan
Date Published
73 pages
This article discusses reforms that would enhance juror comprehension of instructions.
Jurors retain alarmingly low comprehension of the most fundamental aspects of their roles. Studies have shown that subjects that received no instructions comprehended the law better than subjects that received pattern instructions. The causes of juror confusion are the insufficient effort many judges make to ensure that the average juror can comprehend the instructions; the use of legal jargon in contemporary instructions; and the inability to remember verbal instructions. Appellate courts typically grant trial judges great deference in the style and wording of instructions as long as the instructions accurately reflect the law. A defendant convicted by a confused jury has been deprived of due process. The dangers of verdicts based on misunderstandings of burden of proof raises serious constitutional concerns. Many obstacles stand in the way of judicially initiated reform. The greatest impediment is the fear of reversal on appeal. Lawyers are also reluctant to initiate reform because of a belief that confusion may be to their benefit and because of cost concerns. An extra-judicial solution is proposed derived by reflecting on the standard for reviewing a defendant’s comprehension of a guilty plea. By adopting similar language for the rule governing jury instructions, trial courts could ensure that jurors comprehend the instruction. The sole Federal rule governing jury instructions is the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 30. Rule 30 makes no effort to aid juror comprehension, but instead focuses on procedures for drafting instructions. A proposed amendment to Rule 30 would compel affirmative steps to ensure juror comprehension, such as determining that the jury understands the elements of the crime charged, the presumption of innocence, and the prosecution’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by explaining until confusion is resolved. Other reforms that would enhance juror comprehension are rewriting instructions in plain language, furnishing jurors with printed copies of instructions during deliberations, and inviting jurors to ask clarifying questions. 579 footnotes


No download available