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Ninth Circuit Reverses Convictions Where Trial Court Failed to Provide Oral Jury Instructions

by Chad Marks

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the district court’s failure to provide oral jury instructions on the applicable substantive law constitutes structural error requiring reversal of defendant’s conviction.

In February 2016, Cesar Becerra exercised his right to a jury trial on six counts involving the distribution of heroin and methamphetamine. The court explained that it would provide the jurors with written copies of the jury instructions at the start of trial. As long as the instructions were not subsequently changed, the court made clear it would not read the instructions aloud to the jurors.

Once the evidence was closed, one instruction was added while two were modified. The court read the full text of the three new and modified charges to the jury. True to its word, the court did not read aloud any of the remaining 27 instructions or orally instruct the jury on the substantive law.

Becerra was found guilty of all six charges. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, Becerra argued that the district court erred when it did not read the jury instructions aloud to the jury.

This was not the first time the Court was addressed this issue. In 1992, the Court decided Guam v. Marquez, 963 F.2d 1311 (9th Cir. 1992). In that case, the Court found that it was a structural error not to instruct a jury orally as to the entire substantive law the jury must apply.

In Marquez, like in the present case, the jurors were provided only with a set of written instructions. Marquez specifically held that it was error for the trial court not to orally instruct the jury on the elements of the charged offenses before submitting the matter to the jury. The Marquez panel reasoned that an oral jury charge is necessary to ensure that every member of the jury has actually received the instructions.

In ruling in favor of Becerra, the Court explained that “there are excellent reasons” why judges are to read jury instructions to the jury rather than simply providing them in writing. It made clear that jurors may not adequately comprehend written instructions that are usually written in a language more suitable for lawyers than laypersons. The Court further recognized that people naturally glaze over a long paragraph of a text or flip over a few pages of a lengthy stack of papers.

“When the instructions are read orally, tonal inflections can make the content of the instructions more accessible, as well as discourage the ‘tuning out’ common when reading dense material,” said the Court.

Oral instructions in the formal courtroom setting assures jurors are exposed to the substance of the essential instructions by at least one sensual route. The oral charge also performs a signaling function of the gravity of the occasion. For these reasons, the Court found that the historic practice of oral jury instructions is central to the fairness of jury trials and that failure to provide them constitutes a structural error.

Accordingly, the Court reversed Becerra’s convictions and remanded for a new trial. See: United States v. Becerra, 939 F.3d 995 (9th Cir. 2019). 

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