Pattern jury instructions are a script of the words that will be read to jurors when the judge charges the jury at the end of a trial. Charging the jury includes the judge’s instructions to the jury about the law that applies to the case the jury is deciding. Pattern jury instructions are primarily used in the local, state, and federal courts of the United States.
All U.S. states, with the exception of Texas and West Virginia, use pattern jury instructions. The instructions are generally written in common language because the goal is to make the law understandable to the laypeople who make up the jury. The jury instructions are usually read at the end of the trial but before the jurors leave the courtroom to begin the process of making their decision, known as deliberating.
The model jury instructions will include the applicable laws the jury needs to consider when making its decision. There are different types of standard jury instructions depending on whether the case being decided is a civil or criminal case. Each individual state’s jury instruction models will differ based on the laws of the particular state.
One criticism of pattern jury instructions is that the script is often used with few changes to accommodate the circumstances of the particular case. In many instances, only the names of the people involved in the case and the location of the case will be inserted into the script that is read to the jury. In other instances, pattern jury instructions are used as a starting point for researching the applicable law in case.
Common phrases found in the instructions include those that inform the jury of the burden of proof it should seek when deciding a case. In a criminal case, the jury is instructed to convict if the burden or proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the jury is instructed to make its decision based on “a preponderance of the evidence.”
Part of the pattern jury instructions includes the judge instructing the jury that only evidence presented in the trial should be considered in the deliberations. The judge also tells the jurors that they must make their decision based on what the law is, not what they think the law should be. Some judges in some cases will go beyond the pattern jury instructions and present the jurors with the disputed facts of the case that they are to decide in their deliberations.