New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
January 4, 2008

Second Circuit Issues Important Ruling Rejecting Jury Instructions That Define the Jury's Role in a Criminal Case as a Quest for Truth

While jurors in criminal cases may like to see themselves on a quest for truth, their role is actually more circumscribed and technical - and perhaps less satisfying - than that of truthseeker, as the Second Circuit confirmed in an important decision today, United States v. Glover, 05-5047-cr, January 4, 2008.  The case has ramifications both for challenges to a trial court's jury instructions, and also challenges to prosecutors' summations.

In Glover, Glover's co-defendant, Shamsideen, had challenged a "truth" instruction to the jury, which included the following language: "the crucial, hard-core question that you must ask yourselves as you sift through the evidence is, where do you find the truth?  The only triumph in any case, whether it be civil or criminal, is whether or not the truth has triumphed."  The Court held that the challenged instruction would constitute error when viewed in isolation, because it was inadequate to ensure the jury's proper understanding of the presumption of innocence and the government's burden of proof.  The Court went on: "The question ['where do you find the truth?'] fails to make clear that, even if the jury strongly suspects that the government's version of events is true, it cannot vote to convict unless it finds that the government has proved each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  The question also fails to inform the jury that if the evidence is insufficient to permit it independently to 'find the truth,' its duty, in light of the presumption of innocence, is to acquit.  Further to the extent the challenged instruction in this case went on to reference the 'triumph of truth' as essential to justice 'in any case, whether it be civil or criminal,' such language, without more, fails to alert the jury that a higher standard of proof is demanded in criminal than in civil cases."

Moreover, the Court joined with several other appellate courts that have discouraged the use of truth instructions, concluding that "to the extent a trial court thinks it appropriate in a criminal case to identify for a jury a single 'crucial, hard-core question,' that question should be framed by reference not to a general search for truth but to the reasonable doubt standard that the law has long recognized as the best means to achieve the ultimate goals of truth and justice."

Finding error in isolation, the Court nonetheless found the charge adequate when viewed in the context of the entire charge. Under that analysis, the entire charge did not present a "reasonable likelihood that the jury thought it could return a guilty verdict on anything less than the required constitutional standard of proof."  The Court accordingly affirmed the conviction. 

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