Before the jury in the Jayson Williams trial began deliberating last month, the judge, in an unusual action for New Jersey, gave jurors a written copy of his oral instructions on the law underlying the eight charges against Williams. Again and again over the next four days, jurors relied on the 23-page document for guidance, says the New York Times. The jury reached a verdict in 23 hours after a 15-week trial.
Judges in federal and state courts around the country still read juries their instructions on the law, a process known as a charge. Critics consider it a tedious exercise for juries, with judges explaining complex concepts of law in dense language that is not easily understood or retained by jurors. In efforts over the last decade or more to make the charges more comprehensible to juries, judges in federal courts and courts in at least 36 states have the option to give them written copies of their oral charge, says the National Center for State Courts and Westlaw, a legal research service.
New Jersey’s judges have had authority to give juries written instructions since 1982. But the practice is not widespread, said Michael Garrahan of the state’s administrative office of the courts. “I think it’s becoming a little more commonplace as technology advances,” he said. Legal instructions for various criminal charges are now uniform statewide. Judges can download them from the Internet and add minor changes dealing with specific issues in a case.
In New York, civil court judges can give written charges. The state court system has asked the Legislature to extend the authority to criminal court judges, if a jury requests a written charge. Jurors in the Williams trial say the written instructions made their deliberations easier and quicker and helped produce the divided verdict against Williams, 36, a former New Jersey Nets star. He was acquitted of the most serious charge against him – aggravated manslaughter – in the fatal shooting of a chauffeur, and two weapons charges. The jury deadlocked, 8 to 4 for acquittal, on a second manslaughter count. It convicted Williams of tampering with witnesses and evidence after the shooting, and two relatively minor cover-up charges.