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Jury charge in assault, child pornography and other felony trials

Most everyone in the United States who is protected by the Constitution is aware of the basic tenet that defendants in criminal cases are presumed to be innocent until prosecutors prove that they are guilty of the crimes. The right to a trial by jury is also understood. Jurors who hear cases, however, are often doing so for the first time. Although most of us have familiarity with the process thanks to television, movies and books, a real understanding of what is expected of jurors during the trial and how they must approach their conclusions is something that must be learned.

One of the responsibilities of a presiding trial judge is to charge members of the jury. This means he or she provides clear instructions, in general and particular to the trial, that the jury follows during proceedings and deliberations. One of the most important instructions deals with the presumption of innocence. The burden of proof falls to the state; a defendant doesn't have to prove innocence. The defense strategy will support innocence and refute the state's allegations with its own evidence.

In 1978, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire prescribed a model charge dealing with reasonable doubt. The justices directed that jurors must be told from the bench that a defendant enters a courtroom as an innocent person, and they must consider the defendant to be so until the state convinces them he or she is guilty of every element of the alleged crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. Reasonable means not unreasonable - the doubt must be based on reason, not frivolous or fanciful. It can't be easily explained away. It remains a doubt despite all the prosecution evidence offered against it. The charge must further direct each juror to apply the reasonable doubt test to every element of the crime, and, if satisfied with the proof presented by the state, that juror should find the defendant guilty. If any one or more of the elements are doubtful, that defendant must be found not guilty. The job of the defense is to work through evidence and testimony to cast doubt on the charges.

Source: New Hampshire Court Rules, "Model Charge: Burden of Proof Presumption of Innocence, Reasonable Doubt" accessed Feb. 18, 2015

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