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Getting jury instructions right the first time can be critical

There is a saying among attorneys that "The devil is in the details." Sometimes this can refer to the need to carefully read a statute, regulation or court case; the failure to properly understand how the law works can lead to unfortunate consequences for the client in particular, but also for the attorney and in a criminal matter even the system of justice generally.

Consider, for example, a recent decision from the Florida Supreme Court ordering a new trial for a man who was convicted of rape. At trial, it appears that the prosecutor and the court committed a prejudicial error in something seemingly as simple as preparing an instruction for the jury. The prosecutor claimed in the instruction that the testimony of the alleged victim did not need corroboration, and the judge agreed. The defense attorney objected, but was overruled both at trial and by the court of appeals

As it turns out, though, the defense attorney was right to object to the instruction, which the supreme court held to have prejudiced the defendant's rights by improperly swaying the jury.

Although the supreme court decision in this case was ultimately good news for the man accused of committing the crime, the amount of time and effort involved, an appeal all the way to the supreme court, shows how a lack of attention to detail can have a significant impact on the rights of the accused in a criminal trial, and can even lead to a conviction that is at least plausibly improper.

As this case demonstrates, it is an important function of a criminal defense attorney to pay close attention to even seemingly minor details like the wording of jury instructions, and to be alert to the need to object to preserve an issue for appeal when necessary.

Source: CT Post, "Florida Supreme Court orders new trial in rape case," June 25, 2015

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