What are Jury Instructions?
Most Americans are aware that juries decide whether to convict or acquit a criminal defendant. But what many Americans may not know is that juries only decide questions of fact, while questions of law are left to the judge. A judge decides what the law is, and then instructs the jury accordingly by reading them the jury instructions.
Juries deliberate based upon the law stated in the jury instructions—but what if the jury instructions misstate the law? If a jury relies on erroneous jury instructions to convict a criminal defendant, then that defendant’s right to a fair trial has been violated.
Why do jury instructions matter for my case?
Jury instructions matter because if there is a harmful error in the jury instructions, you may be able to appeal your conviction. This is because everyone has a right to a fair trial, and if a jury relies on erroneous instructions to convict someone, then the trial is unfair.
For example, in a recent case, People v. Baratang, the California Courts of Appeal reversed a defendant’s conviction because it was found that the trial court had incorrectly instructed the jury. The defendant in that case, Baratang, was convicted of felony elder theft under Penal Code Section 368(d). To be convicted of 368(d) elder theft, it must be proved that a defendant committed either theft or identity theft against an elder, where the amount stolen was worth more than $950. During Baratang’s trial, jurors were instructed that they could find the defendant guilty under a theory of theft or identity theft, but were further instructed that, if they were to choose a theory of identity theft, then the amount stolen did not matter. Baratang appealed his conviction, arguing that the jury was instructed erroneously which harmed the fairness of his trial.
The court of appeal sided with Baratang, holding that the $950 requirement in 368(d) still exists even if a defendant is being convicted under a theory of identity theft. The court decided that the error in the jury instructions harmed the fairness of Baratang’s trial, because it was not unlikely that at least some of the jurors made their decision to convict Baratang based on an identity theft theory and two withdrawals totaling only $700.
How can I be sure that the jury instructions in my case will not be misstated?
Luckily, Baratang had great legal representation in his criminal appeals lawyer. The appellate lawyer was able to spot the error in the jury instructions and appealed his conviction. Spotting an appealable error in the jury instructions is no easy task. You need a highly experienced and knowledgeable appeals attorney that is capable of pointing out nuanced errors in jury instructions.
The best way to avoid being convicted of a serious crime is to retain an experienced criminal lawyer to ensure that you have a fair trial and only the proper jury instructions are read to the jury in your case. At Wallin & Klarich we are ready to help you fight for your freedom. With over 40 years of experience in criminal defense, Wallin & Klarich has provided excellent legal representation for defendants charged with criminal offenses of all types. If you are in need of legal representation, call Wallin & Klarich to see how we can help you in your case.