Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A little shifting of the burden

My topic today is nothing new. I've written about it before - and I'm sure I will continue to write about it. Of course we're talking about the shifting of the burden of proof from the state to the defense in the jury charge.

Most counties use a so-called "charge bank" where the court reporter will pull out the boilerplate language found in each charge and the language specific to each case. If you dare to question the language you'll get a funny look and the judge will explain that this is way he's done it ever since he took the bench. No to mention that someone who edited a pattern jury charge book wrote it that way, too.

So what if that's how it's always done. There are plenty of things that were done a certain way until someone stood up to challenge them. Just because a judge has used the same language for the last ten years doesn't mean it's correct.

In a criminal trial, the state has the burden to prove each and every element of its case beyond all reasonable doubt. The defendant has no such burden. He is presumed innocent. If the state is unable to meet its burden, the defendant is not guilty and everyone goes home.

The sole duty of a jury is to determine whether or not the state has met its burden of proof. If it has, the defendant is guilty. Otherwise, he's not guilty. The jury is not asked to determine whether the defendant is innocent -- that would require the defendant to prove a point. Requiring the defendant to prove anything only serves to shift the burden of proof from the state to the defendant.

But never let details such as the presumption of innocence or the right to remain silent get in the way of a judge determined to do things the way they've always been done. Heaven forbid we make the court change the language in its precious pattern charge.

The latest offender? Judge Lonnie Cox in Galveston County. Per his standard charge:
"Your sole duty at this time is to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant under the indictment in this cause and restrict your deliberations to the issue of guilt or innocence of the defendant."
Really? And just where in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure does it state that the job of the jury is to determine whether a defendant is innocent or guilty? For that matter, what about the Texas Constitution or the U.S. Constitution?

There is a world of difference between innocent and not guilty. One is not guilty if the state is unable to prove each of the elements of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt. Innocent means you didn't do it, period.

But the charge in this case took burden shifting to a new level. Since the defendant is presumed innocent, the first option for the jury to choose is not guilty. Makes perfect sense. But not in the 56th.

Nope. The first selection for the jurors is to find the defendant guilty. Just think about that for a second.

If a person is presumed innocent, the default verdict should be not guilty; not the other way around. Placing the guilty option first implies that the defense must prove something in order to move the jury to vote not guilty.

1 comment:

Adam Poole said...

"And just where in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure does it state that the job of the jury is to determine whether a defendant is innocent or guilty?"

Mr. Kennedy it states that in several places.

Art. 33.011(b) ; Art. 36.29(d) and most notably Art. 37.07 Sec. 2. (a).

"the judge shall, before argument begins, first submit to the jury the issue of guilt or innocence of the defendant of the offense or offenses charged, without authorizing the jury to pass upon the punishment to be imposed. If the jury fails to agree on the issue of guilt or innocence, the judge shall declare a mistrial and discharge the jury, and jeopardy does not attach in the case."

The "shall" means it would be error to NOT submit the portion of the charge that you quoted. A charge has to be read in its entirety and every charge I have ever seen has substantial language explaining the State's burden notwithstanding the fact that the first part of trial is simply referred to, commonly and in the Code of Criminal Procedure, as the guilt/innocence phase.