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A proposal to simplify and consolidate jury instructions on presumption of innocence, burden of proof and the reasonable doubt standard has been published for comment by the State Committee on Criminal Jury Instructions. The committee, which is organized by the State Office of Court Administration, is soliciting reaction to the proposal from judges and members of the bar by Sept. 15 before seeking formal adoption. “Because jury instructions on [these] subjects lie at the heart of any criminal trial, and because the current charge has been in use for so long, any proposal to replace it is a significant event in the state’s jurisprudence,” wrote Queens Supreme Court Justice Steven W. Fisher, co-chair of the committee. “Accordingly, prior to adoption, the committee is seeking comment from the bench and bar.” Justice Fisher said that the new instructions were first discussed at judicial seminars earlier this year, and that comments from judges at those sessions were currently under consideration by the committee. The main effect of the proposal would be to streamline instructions now contained in three separate standard Criminal Jury Instructions. The proposal also renders instructions on the three points in plainer, more colloquial language. For instance, the first thing that a New York jury hears on the definition of reasonable doubt is the following: “I now discuss with you the constitutionally mandated standard of proof in all criminal cases, that of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Under the committee’s proposed new language, the trial judge would begin the discussion of the definition by saying: “What does our law mean when it requires proof of guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt?’ “ The current instructions on the three issues take up three sections of the Criminal Jury Instructions in 21 paragraphs and 125 lines of type. The new proposal consolidates the same legal concepts into one section, 11 paragraphs and 60 lines of type. EASIER TO COMMUNICATE Presumably, the streamlined, plain-language instructions will make it easier for trial judges to communicate legal concepts to jurors in a manner that they can use. The proposed revision comes eight months after the Appellate Division, First Department, issued an unsigned opinion admonishing trial judges not to stray from the standard jury instructions on reasonable doubt in criminal cases, even if jurors ask for a jargon-free definition. While the panel in People v. Redd, 1784 (NYLJ, Nov. 8, 1999, p. 27), said that the current standard jury instruction “provide[s] … adequate guidance,” Justice David B. Saxe, in a concurring opinion, called the standard reasonable doubt charge “long-winded and full of language not commonly used elsewhere.” Justice Saxe said that the current charge may be “perplex[ing],” but that jury instructions must be delivered verbatim and without deviation in order to ensure that all criminal defendants are judged by the same standard. If the proposed charge is adopted, it would replace the current standard instructions CJI 6.05, 6.10 and 6.20.

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