Jury Charges

February 10, 2022

By Thomas McCutcheon

We were going to trial this week on a car wreck case but did not have enough jurors from which to choose a jury of 12. Alabama law provides that in a civil case there must be at least 24 people from which to choose. This group of people is called the venire. Just so you know, a jury of 12 is a petit jury and they decide civil and criminal cases in Alabama while it takes 18 jurors to form a grand jury which decides whether or not there is sufficient probable cause to bind someone over for a criminal trial.

One of the interesting things that lawyers do for a jury trial is provide the court with jury charges for the judge to read to the jury. The judge is in charge of the law and the jury is there to decide the facts of the case. Ultimately, the judge decides what law to give the jury that would apply in a particular case. If the lawyers believe the judge is in error, they may say so on the record and if things don’t turn out well based on that ill-advised charge, a reversal in the appellate court is possible.

When I started in the late ‘80s, the lawyers would gather paragraphs of law or quotations from the Alabama Supreme Court that they thought applied (and were helpful to their case) and urge the judge to read those to the jury as the law of the case. This led to errors and disputes.

The Alabama Supreme Court created a committee of judges, plaintiff lawyers, and defense lawyers who volunteer their time to produce instructions that accurately reflect the decisions and statutes of the courts and legislature of Alabama. These are known as the Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions. These are statements of the law that are approved by the Alabama Supreme Court.

The goal is that the jury clearly understands the issues, the law, how it decides facts, and how it uses the law to reach a verdict. The trial judge’s responsibility is to communicate these things to the jury. The best practice for lawyers is to find the jury instructions that apply and put them in the case file before they really begin working on the case.

Buckle up, drive safely, and as always, your referrals are appreciated!


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