Why Are Jury Instructions Important to a California Trial?

Posted by Ronald D. HeddingMay 10, 2022

One thing people don't realize is that the jury is instructed on the law related to any charge that a criminal defendant has in California. In Los Angeles County, they use the California Criminal Jury Instructions, commonly called “CALCRIM.”

I've done over 200 jury trials, so I know how vital those jury instructions are.  The bottom line is that they tell the jury what the prosecutors must prove in a criminal case.

Why Are Jury Instructions Important to a California Trial?

Most charges have elements commonly known as “elements of the crime.”   It could be one or two elements; three, four, five, and six elements are individual factors the prosecutors have to prove to obtain a guilty verdict on a criminal charge. 

If they can't meet all of the elements, they cannot get a guilty conviction, a guilty verdict from the jury, and the defense wins. So, you must know what the jury instructions are as a criminal defense attorney.

This is still true even as a defendant if you decide whether to plead guilty, take a deal or take the case to trial.  You're going to match up whatever evidence the prosecutors have against what they have to prove. 

Sometimes they think they have the evidence; other times, they may think it, but they don't have the evidence because the defense will be able to challenge some of that evidence. 

Sometimes that evidence is necessary to prove the case, and if they cannot meet their burden, they end up with a not guilty verdict. In this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys, we will examine this topic further below

What Factors Must Be Proven in Criminal Cases?

So, jury instructions are crucial.  They set the tone.  They set what has to be proven by prosecutors in their case.  Many jury instructions are redundant and tell the jurors how to act and what to do and what not to do.  But when you're talking about elements of a crime and jury instructions, they are crucial to a guilty or not guilty verdict in a criminal case.

So, if you have a criminal matter and are thinking about taking the case to trial, you should pull the jury instructions for each of the crimes you are charged with. 

It would help if you went over them with your attorney, and your attorney will tell you what they have to prove – here's the evidence they will use to prove it. Here's the evidence we're going to utilize to block them from proving it, and ultimately, a jury will read the jury instructions. 

They're going to be given a copy of the jury instructions when they go back to deliberate, and they're going to use those jury instructions to determine whether or not the prosecution has proved their case.

How are Jury Instructions Chosen in California Criminal Cases?

Whenever somebody decides to go to trial in a criminal case, they're entitled to a jury trial, especially if they're facing any potential custody time based on the charges related to their case.

Part of that jury trial is that the jury has to decide whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of the crimes they are being charged with. To do that, the Judge will give them what's called jury instructions discussed above.

Jury Instructions in a California Criminal Case

In Los Angeles County, these jury instructions are part of the CALCRIM set.  They are often called the “elements of the crime.” These are the ones that the judges in LA County use. 

What's going to determine what the jury instructions are, is what charges the person is trying to be convicted of from a prosecution standpoint. Also, specific general jury instructions go along with every criminal jury trial. 

For example, the prosecutors have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt is one of the jury instructions that will be given in every jury trial. If somebody is charged with Penal Code 207 PC kidnapping, then that person will be in a situation where their jury will be given kidnapping jury instructions which is CALCRIM 1215.

So, that's something you probably want to go over with your attorney if you're thinking about fighting your case.  You want to ask your attorney what the government has to prove in my case? 

What Are Lesser Included Charges?

A lot of times, attorneys can tell you.  For example, if someone is charged with Penal Code 245(a)(1) PC assault with a deadly weapon, the attorney will be able to tell them the gun can be any weapon; it doesn't necessarily have to be a firearm, for example. 

It could be a car; it could be a knife, a boot -- whatever the circumstances are.  And I like to tell my clients in layman's terms what they're facing and what a jury would have to prove to be successful in coming back with a guilty verdict.

Criminal Defense Attorney in California

So, in addition to the separate charges, the person faces dictating exactly what their jury instructions will be.  Several lesser included charges could be included. 

Let's say, for example, somebody is charged with California Penal Code 664/187 PC attempted murder. Still, the facts of their case also lend them to the fact that instead of attempted murder, maybe it should be assault with a deadly weapon or some other crime, like attempted involuntary manslaughter, for example. 

These are lesser included crimes.  Sometimes you have to argue for those as a criminal defense attorney, so the jury has a chance to find the person guilty of a lesser crime versus the more serious crimes.

Other times, strategically, you don't want to do that.  You don't want your client convicted of anything.  You want a straight not-guilty verdict.  Other times, the judges must give particular lesser included jury instructions depending on the facts of the case and the charges.

So, what determines your jury instructions is, ultimately, your judge and your criminal defense attorney arguing on your behalf to get you the best jury instructions to end up with the best outcome at your criminal jury trial.

So, if you want the best for a jury trial, someone who is battled tested and has been at war for 30 years defending people just like you, you've come to the right place.

Pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I stand at the ready to help you. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles County and serves people across the state of California. We offer a free case review by phone or filling out the contact form.