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BlogsPublications | August 5, 2016
2 minute read

Trial Courts must provide spoken instructions to juries

The Michigan Court of Appeals held that trial courts are required to provide juries with spoken instructions of the elements of a charged crime.  In People v. Traver, No. 325883, the defendant appealed his convictions for assault with a dangerous weapon (felonious assault) and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm).  Defendant contended that although the trial court provided the jurors with written instructions reciting the elements of the charged offenses, it failed to read aloud the elements of the two counts on which he was found guilty.  Defendant further complained that the instructions as given were defective.  The Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed defendant’s convictions and remanded for a new trial.

The Court of Appeals looked at two court rules that address the process of instructing a jury.  It found that while neither specifically states that the instructions must be oral, both contemplate that instructions must always be spoken, at least in the first instance.  Under the court rules, written instructions serve as an adjunct to the spoken instructions.  As such, a trial court may not simply skip the reading-aloud step by merely handing the jurors a document listing the elements of the charged crimes.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals ruled that the written instructions given to the jury were themselves were defective.  While the written information regarding the felony-firearm charge covered the issue of possession, it said nothing at all about the actual offense of felony-firearm.  The Court relied on People v Duncan, 462 Mich 47; 610 NW2d 551 (2000), in which the Michigan Supreme Court stated that a complete failure to instruct the jury regarding any of the elements of a charged offense constitutes automatic reversal.  Because the trial court never instructed the jury regarding the elements of the crimes and then provided inaccurate written instructions regarding the elements of felony-firearm, the Court of Appeals reversed both of defendant’s convictions.

Judge Sawyer, dissenting, held that the defendant’s expressed satisfaction with the instructions as given by the trial court waived any claimed error in the instructions themselves.