How did jury instructions help convict Alex Murdaugh of a double Murder? What every criminal defendant must know about jury instructions?
What critical piece of evidence destroyed the defense’s case in the Murdaugh murder trial?
Recently, Alex Murdaugh, the former South Carolina attorney, was convicted of the double murder of his son and wife. The trial last six weeks and dominated the media headlines. Murdaugh, originally denied that he was near the crime scene on the day in question where his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, were found murdered. Later evidence, in the form of video taken from one of the victim’s phone captured Murdaugh’s voice in the background and showed that Murdaugh lied.
This inconsistency forced Murdaugh’s defense lawyers to put him on the stand to try to explain away the inconsistencies. Putting the defendant on stand, in his own defense is always a risk. There is actually a specific instruction during the trial that jury, cannot draw any adverse inference (adverse inference instruction) if a defendant fails to testify. It is important to keep in mind that the burden is always on the prosecution and never the defense in any criminal trial (burden of proof instruction.)
During Murdaugh’s testimony, he explained that he had to lie as to his whereabouts due to paranoia brought on by his drug addiction. Murdaugh admitted that he lied but that he was not lying about what happened to his wife and son. The prosecutor drew attention to Murdaugh’s credibility in its closing argument.
After the defense and prosecution rested the judge in the case gave his final instructions to the jury. During these instructions, he gave an instruction known as “false in one, false in all.” This instruction was incredibly powerful for the prosecution as it basically told the jurors, if you think he lied about one thing, you have the right to disbelieve everything he told you during his testimony. This appears to be exactly what happened in this case!
What are jury instructions and why are they important?
Jury instructions are a topic which rarely receive any attention. Those unfamiliar with the legal profession or those who have never served on a jury are probably not even aware that prior to the start of jury deliberations a great deal of time is taken to instruct the jury on what they may or may not consider during the course of those deliberations.
Jury instructions not only include the elements of the charges against the defendant which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, they also include instructions on other evidentiary issues like testimony. Subjects such as the defendant’s good character, circumstantial versus direct evidence, inconsistent statements, and even statements made by the attorneys during the course of the trial are discussed in jury instructions. The defense and prosecution spoke to the jury about all of these instructions during their opening and closing arguments to the jury.
What roles do the prosecutor and criminal defense lawyers have with regards to jury instructions?
Prior to a judge giving instructions, attorneys are able to make recommendations to the trial judge on what instructions the judge should explain to jurors. Jury instructions are also discussed during jury selection to determine if a prospective juror maintains any biases against the defendant or the justice system.
Many of the questions asked on juror questionnaires reflect the issues discussed in jury instructions, most specifically questions dealing with an individual’s ability to follow the law despite personal beliefs, and prior knowledge gained through extraneous sources, such as the media.
Why should a criminal defendant and his/her lawyers care about jury instructions?
Clients will almost never ask their attorney about jury instructions but the Murdaugh case presents an opportunity to show their importance and why both the defense and prosecution should focus their strategy and arguments around the content of jury instructions.
In the Murdaugh case, his defense team failed to address the cell phone video evidence which showed that their client was lying. It is believed that the defense team either ignored this critical piece of evidence or simply overlooked it. This was a critical mistake which made an already bad case for the defense even worse.
If you or a friend is charged with a crime, you must speak to a criminal defense lawyer to understand your options at the trial and pre-trial level! Jury instructions are provided in every criminal jury trial regardless of the charge. Don’t underestimate their value to a case.
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