California Translates Jury Instructions To English

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One California juror thought that “malice aforethought” meant that a defendant had to kill a victim with a mallet. More than half of jurors questioned in Washington, D.C., thought that “preponderance of the evidence” meant “a slow, careful pondering of the evidence.”

To combat such basic misunderstandings, California this week adopted easy-to-comprehend civil jury instructions in California. Simplified criminal jury instructions will follow in two years.

One example of the coming changes: Jurors are now instructed that “innocent misrecollection is not uncommon.” To clear up any confusion, the judge will soon say, “People often forget things or make mistakes in what they remember.”

The California Judicial Council’s Commission on the Jury System found in 1996 that jury instruction was “on occasion, simply impenetrable to the ordinary juror.” Its recommendation was to turn the gobbledygook into short, declarative sentences. The instructions were approved Wednesday and will be used starting Sept. 1. Many of them will be tested through appellate proceedings.


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