Erroneous Jury Instruction as the Basis for Post-Conviction Appeals

Under US constitutional law, all criminal trials must be conducted before juries. Generally speaking, the jury’s role is to hear the evidence and make a determination of innocence or guilt. However, after all the evidence has been presented and before the jury begins to deliberate, the judge must give instructions to the jury. In a typical criminal trial, the jury instructions may run to 50 pages or more.

If there are meaningful errors in the jury instructions, and if those errors have been objected to by defense counsel, then erroneous jury instructions can be the basis for a successful post-conviction appeal. A good case that illustrates the criminal defense legal point is Francis v. Franklin, 471 US 307 (US Supreme Court 1985). In that case, the defendant was convicted of murder that occurred during a prison escape attempt and was sentenced to death. At trial and on appeal, the defendant argued that he fired his gun accidentally and that he did not intend to shoot or kill the victim. During his trial, after the evidence was presented, the judge gave the jury various instructions including this instruction regarding intent (emphasis added):

Jury Instruction (in part)

“A person shall not be found guilty of any crime committed by misfortune or accident where it satisfactorily appears there was no criminal scheme or undertaking or intention or criminal negligence. The acts of a person of sound mind and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person’s will, but the presumption may be rebutted. A person of sound mind and discretion is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts but the presumption may be rebutted.”

The Supreme Court held that this part of the instructions to the jury was erroneous and the conviction was overturned. As explained by the court, the problem with this particular jury instruction involved the various uses of the words “presumed” and “presumption.” Under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, prosecutors must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, EVERY fact necessary to constitute the crime with which the defendant is charged. This means that the prosecution is barred from using evidentiary presumptions to relieve the State of its burden of proving every essential element of a crime. An evidentiary presumption allows a jury to ASSUME a fact-based on proof of other facts. A simple example might be the presumption of rain if it is proven that the ground is wet. But there are lots of reasons that the ground might be wet other than rain — like a water main break, sprinklers, someone throwing a bucket of water on the ground, etc. If RAIN is an element of the criminal charge, then the prosecutors must prove that it RAINED, not just that the ground was wet.

As demonstrated by Francis v. Franklin, a jury instruction that contains error can be the basis for a successful post-conviction appeal. Note that omission of a necessary jury instruction can also be the basis for a successful post-conviction appeal.

Speak With a Criminal Appeals Attorney Today

For more information, contact the criminal defense team at the Federal Criminal Law Center. Our firm knows how to fully assess an individual’s case and how to identify the strongest grounds for appeal. Contact us today by calling (404) 633.3797 or by completing our quick and convenient online form. It is important to remember that there are often narrow windows of time in which to file an appeal. Contact us today.