Monday, June 14, 2010

Jury charge undermines presumption of innocence

One of the things a judge always tells a jury (in one form or another) is that "the jury is the exclusive judge of the facts, but is bound to receive the law from the court and be governed thereby." The law is contained in the jury charge the court gives to the jury prior to their deliberations. The jury charge used in many of the misdemeanor courts in Harris County, however, misstates the law.

The standard jury charge used in County Criminal Court at Law No. 3 is one of those charges.
The law does not require a defendant to prove his or her innocence or produce any evidence at all.
That is the essence of the presumption of innocence. It is the prosecution's burden to prove that the citizen accused committed each and every element of the offense.
You are instructed that the criminal information is not evidence of guilt. It is the means whereby a Defendant is brought to trial in a misdemeanor prosecution. It is not evidence, nor can it be considered by you in passing upon the guilt or innocence of this Defendant.
It is not the jury's duty to determine whether the citizen accused is innocent of anything. It is the jury's duty to determine whether the prosecution has proved each and every element of its case beyond all reasonable doubt. If the prosecution fails to prove its case beyond all reasonable doubt, then the jury must find the citizen accused not guilty.
Your sole duty at this time is to determine the guilt or innocence of the Defendant under the information in this case, and restrict your deliberations solely to the issue of guilt or innocence of the Defendant.
This is the last paragraph of the charge and the law is misstated twice -- and this is the last thing the jurors hear from the judge before beginning their deliberations. The "sole duty" of the jury in a criminal case is to determine whether or not the prosecution has proved each and every element of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt.

Using the phrase "guilt or innocence of the Defendant" three times in the charge only serves to undermine the presumption of innocence and shift the burden of proof from the state to the citizen accused.


Walter Reaves said...

Great insight. As with so many things, when we see things repeatedly we miss what's what right in front of us.

I think you are right - it does shift the debate. There's a big gap between innocence and not guilty. It's certainly worth an objection. Instead of guilt or innocence how about "proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt"

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comment, Walter.

All the times I've seen the standard charge over the years and the first time I really noticed it was when I was drafting a charge and I happened to have a copy of the court's charge in my trial notebook.

I like your suggestion for the proper language in a proposed charge.