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Here is why jury instructions are critical

  • Darren Kavinoky is a criminal defense attorney and TV host
  • He analyzes how the jurors might interpret the jury instructions during deliberations
Here is why jury instructions are critical
Darren Kavinoky

Monday night at 10 p.m ET on a special edition of HLN After Dark, Vinnie Politan is one-on-one with the Zimmerman prosecution team to try to find out what happened. HLN has been all over this case, and nothing is off-limits in this primetime interview.

Editor’s note: Darren Kavinoky is a criminal defense attorney at the Kavinoky Law Firm in California. He is a TV legal analyst, keynote speaker, and the creator and host of “Deadly Sins” on Investigation Discovery. He is on Twitter.

What role might the jury instructions play in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin?

Coming soon to HLN: Georgia v. Andrea Sneiderman

First, a little context. The role of the jury is to act as the fact-finder and to apply those facts to the law as instructed by the judge. The jury instructions, which are read to the jurors by the judge and also given to them in written form for use during deliberations, are like the rule book in the case. They tell the jurors exactly what law they are supposed to apply to the facts that they’ve found to be true.

We’ve seen both the prosecution and defense argue strenuously for certain jury instructions to be given (or not given) and for good reason: If jury selection is the most critical part of the case, since even the most compelling arguments will fall flat with an unreceptive audience, then the instructions that the jury receives are a close runner-up in terms of importance to the outcome of the case. The instructions represent the law that must be applied, and while jurors may debate the facts, the law is non-negotiable. 

What many consider fascinating about the instructions themselves is that they begin not by defining the crime of murder, or even the lesser crime of manslaughter (which is also an option for the jurors), but by discussing when killing in self-defense is justifiable or excusable. 

When the jurors retire to deliberate, there is no instruction manual telling them how they must approach their task (beyond selecting a foreperson); they are free to take on the debate and the instructions in any manner they choose. But if they structure their deliberations based on the order of the jury instructions as they are presented, the first issue they will confront is whether Martin’s killing was justifiable.

This, quite obviously, is the dispute that is at the center of the Zimmerman trial, but if it is determined at the outset that it is justifiable, then we can expect a verdict to be reached in short order.

Second-Degree Murder

The most serious charge against Zimmerman is that of second-degree murder. Unlike first-degree murder, which requires premeditation and deliberation, second-degree murder has no such elements. The following is indicated in the instructions themselves:

“To prove the crime of Second-Degree Murder, the State must prove the following three elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. Trayvon Martin is dead.

2. The death was caused by the criminal act of George Zimmerman.

3. There was an unlawful killing of Martin by an act imminently dangerous to another and demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life.”

The jury instructions then go on to define several of the key terms used in these elements as follows:

“An ‘act’ includes a series of related actions arising from and performed pursuant to a single design or purpose.”

“An act is ‘imminently dangerous to another and demonstrating a depraved mind’ if it is an act or series of acts that:

-A person of ordinary judgment would know is reasonably certain to kill or do serious bodily injury to another, and

-Is done from ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent, and

-Is of such a nature that the act itself indicates an indifference to human life.

In order to convict of Second-Degree Murder, it is not necessary for the State to prove Zimmerman had intent to cause death. If there is reasonable doubt about any one of these three elements, Zimmerman is entitled to an acquittal.”


The jury instructions also explicitly indicate that even if jurors are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman is guilty of murder, they are then to consider whether he is guilty of the lesser included crime of manslaughter. (If they do return a guilty verdict on the murder charge, the manslaughter charge is rendered moot, and the jurors do not need to decide it. Zimmerman will not be convicted of both. It will be one or the other, or neither.) As per the instructions, jurors must consider the following:

“To prove the crime of Manslaughter, the State must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. Trayvon Martin is dead.

2. George Zimmerman intentionally committed an act or acts that caused the death of Martin.

Zimmerman cannot be guilty of manslaughter by committing a merely negligent act or if the killing was either justifiable or excusable homicide.”

Many expert observers view the manslaughter allegation as the most potentially dangerous, since it invites the opportunity for a “compromise” verdict in a case that has captured international attention. This is a drama that will play out on the world’s stage in just moments and to many represents the ultimate in reality TV.

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