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Toward Understandable Jury Instructions

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 1982
12 pages
Findings and implications are presented from a study that examined the effects of complex and simplified jury instructions on jurors' comprehension of their functions and legal issues in the case.
While standardized jury instructions have focused on the elimination of legal error, there has been little serious attention to simplification of language that shows empirically an increase in juror comprehension of the instructions. This study used two sets of videotapes of an actual trial where complex jury instructions were used and a simulated trial where simplified jury instructions were used. A total of 314 study participants viewed the videotaped instructions, and then each juror was escorted to a room where an examiner asked a series of short-answer questions designed to measure juror comprehension of the instructions given. In addition to focusing on general juror responsibilities, the testing dealt with the legal issues involved in each case. Study participants were determined to be similar to representative juries in actual cases. Results suggest that juror comprehension of judicial instructions can be increased significantly by simplifying the language used in the instructions. It is unlikely, however, that committees drafting jury instructions will increase the understandability of the language used until this is legally required by appellate decisions. Tabular data and 47 footnotes are provided.

Date Published: January 1, 1982