By John Hightower, J.D., Law Librarian
Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne P.C., Huntsville
Pattern jury instructions, whether for criminal or civil cases, are important for the fair, proper, and efficient administration of justice. For quite a number of years, Alabama has had model instructions for both civil and criminal trials. Although the civil instructions are updated almost every year, the last full edition of the criminal instructions was in 1994.
But about 4 years ago, the Alabama Supreme Court’s committee on criminal pattern jury instructions began its work in earnest. And the committee has made a great deal of progress as you can easily see if you visit the Alabama Supreme Court and State Law Library’s website.As it completes them, the committee provides the instructions to the library for publication on its website. So far, there has been no interest in publishing the instructions in book form. Furthermore, web publication of the instructions means that updated instructions are more quickly available to courts and attorneys.
Circuit Judge Virginia Vinson of Birmingham is the current chair of the committee. She indicates that if the Alabama Legislature did not pass any new criminal statutes, the committee could probably finish its work in about 6 to 8 months. Since a complete cessation in legislative activity is not likely to occur any time soon and since all crimes have not yet been addressed by the instructions posted on the library’s website, Judge Vinson suggests that attorneys may still need to consult the 1994 edition of the criminal pattern jury instructions for crimes not addressed by the instructions on the library’s website.
Judge Vinson also indicated that the next big set of instructions to be released will concern theft. And she also expressed appreciation to former Montgomery County district attorney Ellen Brooks for her assistance to the committee in serving as its reporter. Judge Vinson will be stepping down as chair of the committee at the end of September 2017 when she retires.
Two important pointers about jury instructions from the Alabama Supreme Court
“It is the preferred practice to use the pattern jury instructions in a capital case.” Ex parte Hagood, 777 So.2d 214, 219 (Ala.1999), cited in Johnson v. State, 120 So. 3d 1130, 1182 (Ala. Crim. App. 2009).
“While most pattern jury instructions may be properly used in the majority of criminal and civil cases, there may be some instances when using those pattern charges would be misleading or erroneous. In those situations, trial courts should deviate from the pattern instructions and give a jury charge that correctly reflects the law to be applied to the circumstances of the case.” Ex parte Wood, 715 So. 2d 819, 824 (Ala. 1998).