New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

State v. Baum and the Importance of Jury Instructions

The recently decided NJ Supreme Court case of State v. Baum stemmed from a prosecution for aggravated manslaughter and death by auto.  Baum, the driver, struck and killed two teenage girls who were walking in the bicycle lane of a major roadway in Kinnelon.  Baum had battled alcoholism for approximately seven years preceding the accident, and also suffered from depression.  His blood alcohol was more than four times the legal limit at the time of the accident.  He had taken a prescribed anti-depressant the night before the accident.  He also took Librium that morning to control his symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

At trial, Baum argued that he lacked the mental capacity to act purposely, knowingly and/or recklessly (the required mental states for the charged offenses) because of his intoxication, which he claimed was involuntary due to his mental diseases or defects of alcoholism and depression.  He presented expert testimony at trial to support the proposition that his drinking was automatic behavior rather then the product of conscious thought.  His jury, apparently unconvinced by this defense, convicted him of two counts of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, and two counts of second-degree death by auto.  The Court sentenced him to two consecutive 20-year prison terms with an 85% parole disqualifier.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the jury charge set forth Baum’s defense in a way that would allow the jury to understand and apply it in light of the facts of the case and Baum’s mental health history.  Affirming the Appellate Division, the Court ruled that the trial judge’s jury charge accurately and intelligibly outlined all of the relevant concepts.

Baum is significant because it focuses our attention on one of the most important elements of any criminal jury trial.  Thorough and accurate jury charges are important for a wide variety of reasons, and criminal defendants – particularly those who seek to appeal an adverse trial verdict – need to understand why this is true.  However, and unlike the majority of the trial, the process of composing jury charges occurs behind the scenes.  The charges actually read to a jury in open court are the final product.  What follows is a basic description of what jury charges are, where they come from, and why they must be accurate and intelligible.

First, what are jury charges?  During a trial, a jury learns of the facts of the case by hearing testimony and seeing exhibits that have passed muster under the evidence rules.  That presentation includes the State’s direct case which is tested by the defense on cross-examination, as well as any direct case the defense may choose to present which is similarly tested through the State’s cross-examination.  Taken together, this gives the jury the facts of the case.  This is the “story line”.  Once the attorneys complete the process of presenting the facts of the case (or telling the story) to the jury, the judge will instruct the jury on the law that it must apply to those facts in order to reach a verdict.  In New Jersey, this presentation by the judge consists of a series of “canned” instructions given in every case, along with a series of charges that are unique to the facts of the case and the charged offense(s).  Most jurors did not attend law school or receive any formal legal training.  The jury charge is composed of the instructions on the legal principles that they need to decide the case just presented to them.

Next, where do jury charges come from?  New Jersey, like most jurisdictions, has Model Jury Charges.  These charges are drafted by attorneys who sit on a committee tasked with formulating generic charges for the different offenses contained in the State’s criminal code.  However, the generic charges are just a point of departure in preparing the charges actually given to a jury in any single case.  Prior to charging the jury, the attorneys and the judge will have a charge conference to discuss and debate what charges should be included in the formal presentation.  Both the State and defense counsel will be given the opportunity to request specific charges that they may feel are particularly relevant to the case.  Each attorney can also object to charges that their adversary wants to include.  Generally speaking, a charge will not be given unless it has factual support in the evidence presented at trial.  Thus, in a homicide case, defense counsel may seek a charge for lesser included offenses of murder, such as aggravated manslaughter or reckless manslaughter, both of which carry significantly lower prison sentences.  But the jury will not hear those charges unless the facts presented at trial support the elements of those lesser included offenses.  Additionally, a trial judge will not typically read the plain text of the generic charges to the jury, but will instead try to insert facts from the trial into those charges at appropriate points to make them more relevant to the case under review.

Finally, why must the charges be accurate and intelligible?  As just noted, this is the jury’s instruction on the applicable law, and the jurors will use them in determining guilt or innocence.  Additionally, jury charges can be a terrific source of appellate issues.  For example, effective appellate arguments that can lead to a reversal of a conviction can be based upon a judge’s refusal to give a charged requested by defense counsel, or the presentation of a charge that was objectionable, inaccurate or confusing.  Trial counsel should ordinarily object to a judge’s refusal to give a requested charge, or the presentation of a charge they deem inapplicable or defective, so as to preserve this issue for appeal.  In any criminal appeal, appellate counsel should carefully analyze the jury charge in light of the facts of the case, as well as any associated objections, so as to determine whether there are viable appellate issues stemming from the judge’s instructions to the jury.

James S. Friedman, LLC represents criminal defendants in trials and appeals in the state and federal courts in New Jersey.  The firm also represents criminal defendants in the New York State trial courts located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  If you have a criminal matter in New Jersey, New York County or Kings County, contact us to discuss your case.