Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Persuade With Jury Instructions

Jurors polled in focus groups and jury debriefings point out again and again that one of their greatest stumbling blocks at arriving to fair and just decisions is jurors' lack of understanding of the jury instructions and how those instructions should apply to the case. No matter how many times jurists attempt to make jury instructions more accessible to the ordinary person, the language remains obscure and convoluted. Lawyers must help jurors make sense of the language - and most importantly - help the jurors understand how these instructions fit with your case.

For example, take the common instruction regarding "negligence." Jurors often interpret the term as meaning deliberately, intentionally failing to do something one should have done. This is, after all, the most common use of the term in our everyday parlance. Unless clearly instructed that the intent to inflict harm is not a prerequisite of a finding for the plaintiff, the jurors, for example, might absolve a physician's incompetence because "the doctor didn't mean to hurt the patient."

In addition, even when jurors understand the words themselves, they can fail to see how the instruction applies to your case. What is obvious to you is often cryptic to jurors. Throughout the trial, relate testimony and evidence to the key terms of your jury instructions, and remind jurors at closing of how you accomplished this. A "bottom-line"-type chart will easily reinforce the connection.

It is a truism that the lawyer who provides the most clarity and logical explanation of a situation is the lawyer who will prevail. Although this is important throughout the trial, it is critical at during closing arguments. Improper handling of jury instructions can damage an otherwise wonderfully prepared and presented case.

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