Dateline: July, 2010, Issue 3

Do instructions help jurors understand presumption of innocence and burden of proof?

Jurors are instructed in criminal cases to presume a defendant innocent and place a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on the prosecution. Even after receiving jury instructions, jurors struggle with these concepts.

With the cooperation of the Wyoming courts, Saxton (1998) gave questionnaires to jurors when they were discharged from service on actual trials.

Only 60% of the jurors who had just served on a criminal jury correctly responded that the fact that the state brought a charge against the defendant was not evidence that he or she had committed the crime.

And 31% of former criminal jurors believed that once the state produced evidence that the defendant committed the crime, the burden shifted to the defendant to prove otherwise.

Despite instructions, 30% to 40% of jurors serving on criminal cases were unable to uphold jury instructions presuming a defendant innocent and placing the burden of proof on the prosecution.

Source Saxton, B. (1998). How well do jurors understand jury instructions? A field test using real juries and real trials in Wyoming. Land & Water Law Review, 33, pp. 59-189.