Jury Instructions: What Jurors Understand

Jury Instructions: What Jurors Understand

Jury Selection
Jury Instructions
Issues Highlighted by the Juan Garza Case
Related Links

Death penalty cases are complex and require the jury to make decisions about life and death that are far different from the usual juror decision of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Research indicates that jurors in capital cases do not fully understand many aspects of the instructions they receive. For example, jurors are often uncertain about their alternatives in a death penalty case: if they sentence an inmate to life in prison, will he or she ever be released? Moreover, some jurors may not realize the important legal distinctions between mitigating and aggravating factors, or even what the words themselves mean.

Jury Selection

Courts can eliminate potential jurors who are not willing to vote for the death penalty in a capital case (“death qualification” ). Views on the death penalty correlate to some degree with race, gender, and religious beliefs.

Jurors who are not eliminated by the judge "for cause" because of their death penalty views can be eliminated by lawyers through "peremptory challenges." The lawyers from both sides are allowed a set number of juror strikes without having to show that the removed jurors are biased. Peremptory strikes are prohibited if they are based solely on the juror's race, gender or religion. Lawyers may strike jurors who lean against the death penalty, and this leaning may allow more members of a particular race or gender to be eliminated from the jury.

Jury Instructions

Guilt Phase and Sentencing Phase Decisions

Once chosen to serve, the jury is given instructions at various points in the case. Death penalty trials consist of two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. Jurors are instructed not to make decisions on sentencing until after they have found the defendant guilty and have heard all the evidence presented in the sentencing phase.

The Capital Jury Project, a national research endeavor funded by the National Science Foundation, interviewed people who had served on death penalty juries from 15 states around the country. They found that approximately 50% of jurors interviewed decided what the penalty should be before the sentencing phase of the trial. This is before they have heard mitigating evidence from the defense or received instructions from the judge about how to make the punishment decision.

Mitigating and Aggravating Factors

Jurors may find the differences between finding mitigating and aggravating factors to be confusing. In death penalty cases, mitigating factors do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and jurors do not have to agree on the existence of a particular mitigating factor or on how much weight it should be given. However, jurors must find that at least one aggravating factor has been proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt in order to find the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

The Capital Jury Project found that 45% of jurors failed to understand they were allowed to consider any mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial, not just the factors listed in the instructions. In addition, two-thirds of jurors failed to realize that unanimity was not required for findings of mitigation. The law allows that even if only one juror finds a factor to be mitigating that finding is relevant for the whole jury. The Project also found that 44% of jurors believed the death penalty was required if the defendant's conduct was heinous, vile or depraved, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty cannot be required because specific aggravating circumstances have been established.

Jurors often have a difficult time sentencing a defendant to death, in part because it is an inherently vague process, especially in terms of weighing mitigating and aggravating factors. Jurors are typically told to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances presented in the case, but they are not given any scale to perform this task.

Understanding Jury Instructions

It can be very difficult for ordinary citizens to understand the abstruse legal framework that the courts have constructed around the death penalty. Craig Haney, a prominent psychologist in California, found that even well-educated people misunderstood the instructions to the jury. His research indicated that:

    California’s entire penalty instruction is very poorly understood by upper-level college students, that these problems are not clarified in actual cases through attorney arguments, and that jurors who had served in actual capital cases were plagued by fundamental misconceptions about what the instructions meant.

Understanding the Meaning of a Life Sentence

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Simmons v. South Carolina (1994) that when a defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue at the sentencing phase of a capital trial, as a matter of fundamental fairness, the defendant is entitled to have the jury accurately informed if the only alternative to a death sentence is life without parole. The “future dangerousness” of a defendant often factors in to whether or not the jury sentences the defendant to death. Jurors may choose a death sentence because they incorrectly believe a defendant will otherwise be paroled and released back into society.

The Capital Jury Project found that most jurors grossly underestimated the amount of time a defendant would serve in prison if not sentenced to death, and the sooner that jurors believed a defendant would return to society if not given the death penalty, the more likely they were to vote for death.

Issues Highlighted by the Juan Garza Case

In his appeals, Juan Garza's attorneys argued that his jury did not consist of a random selection of people from his community in Brownsville, Texas. They argued that some jurors who were rejected because of their views on the death penalty should have been kept on the jury because they might be able to impose a death sentence in some cases. (See Witherspoon v. Illinois). Garza and his attorneys also questioned why other jurors were not eliminated because of the pre-trial publicity in the case. These appeals were rejected by the courts.

At the sentencing phase of Garza's trial, the prosecution argued that if he was not sentenced to death, he could be eligible for parole in 20 years. The prosecution also raised issues of Garza’s future dangerousness (see Simmons v. South Carolina). Under federal law, however, Garza would have to serve a sentence of life without parole if he was not given a death sentence. Garza and his attorneys objected to the prosecutor's remarks and asked that the jury be given specific instructions on his ineligibility for parole, but this instruction was denied. Garza raised this issue on appeal and in his clemency petition, but the courts ultimately ruled that recent Supreme Court opinions on this issue could not be applied to his claim.

Questions for Further Analysis:
  • Would a jury made up of supporters of the death penalty be more likely to convict a defendant than one made up of both opponents and supporters? Are there recent studies that support your view? How could death penalty cases be conducted so as to avoid the problem that death-qualifying the jury raises?
  • Most Americans support the death penalty. Which subgroups in the U.S. have the highest percentage of opposition to the death penalty? Assuming a jury can be completely fair on the question of guilt or innocence, is it proper to allow a jury selection process that results in fewer people of certain races, gender, or religious beliefs serving as the decision-makers for sentencing? If you were a defense attorney, would you deliberately try to get people of certain races or gender on your jury? What if you were the prosecutor?
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has issued key decisions about how the jury may be chosen and what it may hear in capital cases. Consider one or more of the following cases. Discuss the problem addressed by the Court, and how they resolved the issue: Witherspoon v. Illinois (superseded in part by Wainwright v. Witt), Lockett v. Ohio, Lockhart v. McCree, Simmons v. South Carolina, Miller-el v. Dretke).
  • Some defendants have appealed to the Supreme Court to have their death sentences overturned on the grounds that the jury did not understand the instructions on the law and consequently believed they had no choice but to sentence the defendant to death. Read the case of Weeks v. Angelone and analyze the opinions of the majority and dissenting justices on this issue.
  • Read the sample jury instructions provide above. What would you change to make the instructions easier to understand? What are some possible strategies for making sure jurors understand the instructions?

Related Links

Mitigation in Capital Cases
Representation in Capital Cases