What is a Jury Charge?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A jury charge is instructions usually given by a judge to the jury. While this term frequently means instructing the jury before they deliberate a case, charges can occur at the onset of a trial and during the trial if necessary. The most formal jury charge that is given at the end of a case includes a number of features that may be dependent on the type of trial and jurisdiction. Beginning charges could be more variable, and charges during a trial are each very different and depend on the circumstances under which they occur.

A judge usually gives a jury charge to the jury.
A judge usually gives a jury charge to the jury.

An opening jury charge could have a number of different features. With a criminal charge, jurors could be instructed that the accused does not have to prove innocence, that he or she is innocent until the prosecution proves otherwise. Other charges could be more basic and remind jurors not to discuss facts presented in the case with each other until all evidence is presented, and not to make up their minds until they’ve heard all evidence.

A jury charge could include being instructed to disregard certain testimony given in court.
A jury charge could include being instructed to disregard certain testimony given in court.

Charges might contain special instructions such as what to do if the jurors are hearing a second trial of an accused person. They might be told to disregard the past trials and decide only on the merits of the trial they hear. Additional opening charges could include instructions about what is proof, or information about gag orders or sequestration. Some parts of the law pertaining to the trial could be read so jurors understand what they’re deciding.

An end of trial jury charge may explain pertinent law and mandatory sentencing or fines, while enjoining jurors to decide the case based on evidence, and to determine which evidence is credible. In criminal trials, judges may repeat that the prosecution has the burden of proof and that guilt can’t be decided only because a juror thinks someone is guilty. Evidence must decide it.

In civil trials, similar instructions are given, explaining burden of proof and pertinent portions of the law. For both types of trials, basic procedural information could be given at this point. This could tell a jury how to select a foreperson and notify the judge after deliberations.

Additional jury charge types depend on circumstances. A jury could be instructed to disregard certain witness or witness testimony in making decisions. Judges could decide midway through a case to sequester a jury, though this usually only occurs in high profile cases.

In all instances, the jury charge is a way of instructing jurors: giving them needed information to perform their jobs, and making clear the legal matters being considered. Such instructions may be read by a jury or read or delivered by the judge. Prosecutors may also be able to give jury charges, and both prosecutors and defenders may be able to weigh in on a jury charge especially if it seems to unfairly lean in one direction. Charges are never meant to influence the jury’s decision; they are simply meant to inform the jury so each juror makes a fair decision based on case merits.

A jury charge is a way of giving jurors all of the information they need to deliberate.
A jury charge is a way of giving jurors all of the information they need to deliberate.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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