Federal Appeals Based on Erroneous Juror Instructions
Let's review federal post-conviction appeals that are based on erroneous juror instructions. All federal trials are held before a jury, and one critical element in ensuring a defendant receives a fair trial and verdict is how the jury is instructed before deliberating.
These instructions, delivered by the judge, guide the jury in making decisions regarding the guilt or innocence of the defendant. However, these instructions can be many pages long, and if they contain errors or inaccuracies, the jury may return an unfair conviction.
For some, jury instructions are an afterthought rather than a part of the trial strategy. However, they could be a critical issue for an appeal. Jury instructions sometimes contain errors because federal trial lawyers and judges are careless or don't have the time to ensure they are accurate.
The truth is that some juries might receive faulty instructions, which can help if you appeal a federal court decision.
Experienced appellate litigators will know how jury instructions may have affected your case and how to use them on appeal. Under United States constitutional law, all criminal trials must be conducted before a jury, responsible for hearing the evidence and determining innocence or guilt.
After all the evidence has been presented and before the jury begins to deliberate, the judge must give them instructions. Typically, jury instructions can be longer than 50 pages in a federal crime trial.
If there are meaningful errors in the jury instructions, and if the errors were objected to by defense counsel, then erroneous jury instructions might be a valid basis for a successful post-conviction appeal.
Under the Fourteenth Amendment, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements of the crime with which the defendant is charged. This means they can't use evidentiary presumptions, which would allow a jury to assume a fact based on proof of other points.
If your federal criminal defense attorney believes erroneous juror instructions led to you being wrongly convicted, they may file a post-conviction appeal on those grounds. If the appeal is successful, your conviction may be overturned.
What are Juror Instructions?
Juror instructions are directions the presiding judge provides to the jury in a trial before sending them off to deliberate. These instructions outline the laws applicable to the case, guide the jury's deliberations, and set the parameters for the verdict.
When written and presented correctly, juror instructions offer a clear pathway for jurors to navigate the often intricate maze of legal principles, evidence, and arguments presented during the trial.
These instructions are crucial because they form the basis for the jury's understanding and interpretation of the law and evidence.
Without them, jurors would likely vote based solely on opinion and gut instinct based on their reactions to what happened during the trial. The instructions help shape the jury's perspective so that the verdict is based solely on the evidence presented—and that the evidence itself is considered in the law context.
A well-crafted instruction ensures that the jury accurately applies the law to the facts, thus ensuring a fair and just decision. Appeals based on wrong jury instructions commonly occur for a couple of reasons.
First, the trial attorneys usually prepare their instructions, but the court may refuse to give them, or the court could select the prosecutor's bad instructions for the jury. Defense counsel should object in a timely manner and state which instruction is faulty and the basis for the objection.
What Are Some Examples of Possible Errors in Juror Instructions?
Given that juror instructions are often dozens of pages long, accuracy and clarity are crucial to ensuring those instructions are followed. Some common errors in juror instructions that can wrongly impact a verdict include the following:
- Incorrect Statements of Law: The judge might inadvertently provide the jury with an incorrect interpretation or application of the law relevant to the case. This can lead to the jury applying an erroneous legal standard in deliberations.
- Ambiguous Language: Using unclear or vague language in juror instructions can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. This can result in jurors misunderstanding key aspects of the law or evidence.
- Omission of Key Instructions: Sometimes, a judge might fail to provide necessary instructions for the jury's understanding of the case. For instance, they might neglect to instruct the jury on weighing certain types of evidence or fail to explain the burden of proof.
- Overly Complex Instructions: Juror instructions that are too complicated or technical can be complex for jurors to understand, especially if they lack legal training. This can lead to misunderstandings and incorrect application of the law.
- Biased Instructions: Sometimes, juror instructions might be unintentionally worded to favor one side or inadvertently "steer" the reader toward one conclusion. This can unduly influence the jury's deliberations and lead to an unfair verdict.
- Misinterpretation of Evidence: If the judge provides incorrect guidance on interpreting or considering the evidence, it may cause the jury to misconstrue crucial facts, leading to an unjust decision.
What are the Possible Results of an Appeal?
A post-conviction appeal based on erroneous juror instructions usually results in one of three outcomes:
- The appellate court upholds the conviction. The court determines that there either were no errors or that those errors were immaterial to the verdict.
- The conviction is overturned. At this point, prosecutors must decide whether to retry the case.
What is the Post-Conviction Appeals Process?
If you are in a situation where erroneous juror instructions have led to a conviction, your federal criminal defense attorney can file an appeal.
Your attorney must present arguments or evidence showing that the error was not harmless and substantially influenced the verdict. In other words, there's a strong probability that you would not have been convicted if the errors hadn't occurred.
The appeal process begins with filing a notice of appeal, followed by preparing an appellate brief detailing the errors and their impact on the trial's outcome.
The government then can respond, after which the appellate court reviews the arguments and decides. Some of the issues an appellate lawyer and the court will look for include the following:
- Were complete jury instructions offered?
- Did the appellant propose a set of jury instructions that were rejected?
- Was your objection clear?
- Did you specify the grounds for your objections?
- Was the objection made on the record?
When proposing jury instructions, sometimes both sides will craft them in a way that is most helpful to them. However, the court will evaluate whether the requested instructions were prejudicially argumentative or inaccurate.
Some instructions are presumed objected to by law, but federal defense attorneys should still make a timely, clear objection on the record, which might require submitting an objection in writing.
Contact our federal criminal defense law firm to review the case details and discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.
- Appellate Jurisdiction
- Federal Habeas Corpus
- Seeking a Post-Conviction Attorney for Your Federal Appeal
- Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307 (1985)
- California Courts of Appeal
- Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure
- Interlocutory Appeals and the Collateral Order Doctrine
- Eighth Amendment Appeals
- What If Your Appeal is "Remanded for Further Proceedings?"
- Structural Error in a Federal Criminal Case
- Plain Error Rule in Federal Appeals