St. Louis, Missouri – Jurors play a vital role in the legal system, but as non-lawyers, they often require clear guidance when deliberating a case. This is where jury instructions come into play. Serving as a roadmap for jurors, these instructions ensure that they make their decision within the proper legal parameters. In a recent episode of the “Heels in the Courtroom” podcast, trial attorneys discussed the importance of clear and concise jury instructions, as well as potential pitfalls and resources for creating effective instructions.
The podcast hosts, Amy Gunn, Liz Lenivy, Megan Crowe, and Elizabeth McNulty, began by highlighting the significance of jury instructions in Missouri. They mentioned that the state’s Supreme Court recently issued a 58-page memo detailing upcoming changes to the Missouri approved instructions (MAI), which will take effect on July 1, 2022. These changes will specifically impact the instructions concerning exemplary damages and punitive damages.
The discussion then turned to drafting jury instructions for specific cases. Lenivy shared her approach, which involves finding similar cases with similar instructions to serve as a reference. She emphasized the importance of reviewing the most recent version of the instructions and avoiding the “reinvention of the wheel.” The podcast hosts also stressed the value of familiarity with the introduction and history sections of the instruction book, as they provide helpful advice on how to write and argue instructions.
The conversation delved into the distinction between “dirty” and “clean” instructions. Dirty instructions contain citations to relevant legal authorities, while clean instructions are presented to the jury without these citations. The hosts noted the importance of accuracy when reading the instructions to the jury, pointing out that even a single word can significantly impact the jury’s understanding of the case.
The hosts also addressed the concept of a “verdict director,” which is the instruction that guides the jury on how to determine whether a plaintiff has won the case. They discussed the significance of specificity in the verdict director and the potential for a defense attorney to argue against a “roving commission.” A roving commission occurs when an instruction assumes a disputed fact or submits an abstract legal question, allowing the jury to freely choose facts that favor their perception of logic.
The podcast hosts emphasized the need for caution and precision during jury instruction conferences, which must be conducted on the record. They noted that specific objections should be raised during these conferences, and any clerical errors in the instructions can be corrected before the verdict. Furthermore, they advised attorneys to pay close attention when the judge reads the instructions during closing arguments to ensure accuracy and avoid potential errors.
In conclusion, jury instructions are an essential aspect of the legal process, providing jurors with the guidance they need to reach a verdict. Attorneys must carefully craft and present these instructions, ensuring clarity and accuracy throughout the trial. By understanding the potential pitfalls and resources available for creating effective instructions, attorneys can maximize their chances of success in the courtroom.