What are jury instructions?

Jury instructions are the instructions the judge reads to the jury before they deliberate and after the jury has heard the evidence in the case. In California, the California Judicial Council has promulgated both criminal and civil jury instructions, making this task very simple and straight-forward. These instructions are updated each year to ensure that they are up to date with case law.

“The Judicial Council is the policymaking body of the California courts. Under the leadership of the Chief Justice and in accordance with the California Constitution, the council is responsible for ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice.” (CalCrim Jury Instructions, 2021.)

The reason the Judicial Council decided to make instructions for juries is because previously jury instructions were too hard to understand for the average juror.

“These instructions represent the work of the Task Force on Jury Instructions, appointed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George in 1997. Our charge was to write instructions that are both legally accurate and understandable to the average juror. The eight-year effort addressed a need for instructions written in plain English and responded to the specific recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Jury System Improvement that observed: ‘jury instructions as presently given in California and elsewhere are, on occasion, simply impenetrable to the ordinary juror’ (Blue Ribbon Commission on Jury System Improvement, Final Report (May 1996) p. 93).” (CalCrim Jury Instructions, 2021.)

Each jury instruction is identified by number in the California Jury Instructions and in court you will often hear judges and attorneys referring to these instructions by number.

However, your attorney should be aware of when it is important to request special instructions that may help your case. These are called “pinpoint” instructions. “A defendant is entitled to an instruction relating particular facts to any legal issue.” (People v. Sears (1970) 2 Cal.3d 180, 190.) “Upon request, a trial court must give jury instructions ‘that ‘pinpoint[] the theory of the defense,’’” (People v. Earp (1999) 20 Cal.4th 826, 896.)

Judges are often reluctant to grant such requests because they would prefer to rely on the California Judicial Council guidelines and not supplement those instructions. However, fighting for the instructions you need to help the jury understand your case can be the difference between winning and losing, so it is very important to make sure you request all the instructions you are lawfully entitled to. Indeed, a judge’s failure to instruct on a requested instruction can be the error that gets you a new trial if you lose. Accordingly, it is very important to make these requests before the jury is instructed!