For the past four years, the Alabama pattern jury instructions committee (criminal), an official committee of the Alabama Bar, has been working on revising the criminal pattern jury instructions, last issued in book form in 1994 by the Alabama Bar Institute. Since the work of the committee is still in progress, Alabama lawyers may still need to refer to the 1994 book.
“If the Alabama Legislature didn’t pass any new criminal statutes, the committee could probably finish its work in about six to eight months; so, needless to say, we haven’t finished all of our work,” remarked Circuit Judge Virginia Vinson of Birmingham, the just-retired chair of the bar committee working on the instructions.
“There is no interest in publishing the instructions in book form,” said Judge Vinson, “so we have asked the Alabama Supreme Court Library to publish the instructions online.” Several other states including Illinois, New York, Washington, Delaware, Idaho, Hawaii, and Michigan, have also published their pattern instructions online.
Judge Vinson also indicated that the next major release of criminal pattern jury instructions will involve the crime of theft.
HISTORY OF PATTERN JURY INSTRUCTIONS
Going back more than a century, judges and lawyers had to create jury instructions for each new case. Over time, judges learned to collect their instructions, probably in notebooks. When a judge’s instructions were approved by an appellate court, they were probably eager to share their instructions with other judges. Around 1900, jurists and legal scholars began to collect and publish jury instructions, especially those approved in decisions made by appellate courts.
But the movement to have pattern jury instructions began during the 1950s in Illinois when an analysis of appellate cases revealed that roughly one-third of the cases were reversed because of faulty jury instructions. A number of other states quickly followed.
Alabama first adopted civil pattern jury instructions in the late-1960s, with a bar committee beginning its work in 1967. The first book of civil instructions was published in 1974. Now, a standing committee of the bar works on the civil instructions every year, and Thomson Reuters West publishes an updated version of the civil instructions annually.
The first edition of criminal pattern jury instructions came in 1980, shortly aft er the state adopted a new criminal code. Then in 1989, the second edition was published, organizing the instructions by criminal code section. The third edition was published in 1994. Between 1994 and 2013, almost no work was done on the criminal instructions.
Because of a lack of interest in publishing the criminal instructions in book form, the Alabama Bar has had to resort to publishing the revised criminal instructions on the State Law Library’s website. But web publication has advantages. First, getting a copy of the latest revised instructions is inexpensive. Second, there is no wait for a new instruction to be published in book form. So the “latest and greatest” revised instruction is only a website visit away.
SUPREME COURT OBSERVATIONS ABOUT PATTERN INSTRUCTIONS
The Alabama Supreme Court has observed, “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).
But the court’s point of view is a bit different when it comes to cases involving the death penalty. “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).
Thus lawyers are well advised to use pattern jury instructions with care and thought.