Plain Language and Jury Instructions, PlainLanguage.gov
Most jury instructions — long winded collections of complex sentences, arcane definitions and Talmudic distinctions — are all but impenetrable to lay people. So bad are some jury instructions that Court TV Anchor and former Prosecutor Nancy Grace reports having seen jurors turn to one another while listening to instructions and mouth the question, ‘What are they saying?’
Echoing such observations was a recent description in The National Law Journal of a judge who told jurors that a murder conviction required ‘malice aforethought.’ Unfortunately though, the jury interpreted this instruction to mean that the murder had to be committed with a mallet.
Many studies support anecdotal criticism of legalese jury instructions. For example:
• Forty percent of capital jurors wrongly believed that their jury instructions required them to accompany a conviction with a death sentence, according to a study by the Northeastern University’s Capital Jury Project.
• More than fifty percent of jurors defined ‘preponderance of the evidence’ as a ‘slow and careful pondering of the evidence,’ according to a study of Washington DC jurors. The same study found that more than 50 percent of jurors could not define ‘speculate,’ and about 25 percent did not know the meaning of ‘burden of proof,’ ‘impeach’ or ‘admissible evidence.’ . . .