The Importance of Proper Jury Instructions

Charlotte Criminal Lawyer Brad Smith answers the question: “Should I ever plead guilty to a charge?”


A fundamental part of the United States court systems is the right for the accused to have a trial by a jury of their peers. However, included in this right is the inherent idea that those serving on a jury need to be provided with the proper instructions and legal theories in order to make a well informed decision about whether a defendant is guilty or not. In order to reach this decision, proper instructions need to be given. What happens if incorrect instructions are given? The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently ruled on this issue.


revolver-Criminal-Defense-Lawyers-Charlotte-Monroe-Lake-Norman-Defense-Law-firm-300x201State v. Malachi


In State v. Malachi, the defendant was facing three charges – being a felon in possession of a firearm, obtaining habitual felon status, and a concealed weapons charge. The evidence against the defendant included a call to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police that described a man placing a handgun into his pants. The police arrived at the scene and found that the defendant was the person matching the anonymous caller’s description; he was wearing a red shirt, black pants, and is an African American male. The police found the handgun in the defendant’s pants and arrested him.


The jury instructions included an instruction on “Actual-Constructive possession.” The defendant objected to this instruction because he claimed that the evidence showed only actual possession, not constructive. The jury received the instruction and asked for clarification of the definition of possessing a firearm and was given the definitions of actual and constructive possession. The defendant was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a felon.


On appeal, the court vacated the verdict stating that the jury relied on an instruction over the objections of the defendant. The case did not stop at the appeals level, however. The state supreme court reversed the decision of the appeals court. The supreme court stated that jury instructions that are not supported by evidence do not automatically result in a reversal. The question that needs to be asked is whether the jury would have made a different decision if they had not been given the instructions. This is only when the defendant objects at trial to the instruction, like in this case. When a defendant does not object at trial to the instruction, the appeals court is tasked with determining if there was a reasonable probability that a different result would have been reached.


The state supreme court’s reversal of the appeals court decision was largely based on the notion that a defendant is not necessarily entitled to a perfect trial. Instead, the defendant is entitled to a trial that is free of prejudicial error. Harmless errors, or errors that would not have changed the verdict if their inclusion in instructions was omitted, do not result in an automatic reversal of charges.


The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are here to help you navigate the confusing world of a criminal trial. We know that defendants should be given the fairest trial possible and strive to take the proper precautions and steps to ensure fairness. If you have been charged with a crime in North Carolina, the criminal law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are here to help you. Our goal is to give you the best possible representation to achieve the best possible outcome, this includes making sure that none of your constitutional rights are being violated in the process. Contact us today for more information.  If you find yourself facing criminal charges and need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney in or around Charlotte, Lake Norman, or our new office in Monroe (by appointment only until 2019), please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.








The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC make it their mission to zealously defend their clients on a wide range of criminal matters at both the state and federal levels. These matters may include any charge from traffic offenses; DWI/DUI; drug charges (from simple possession to possession with intent to distribute and trafficking); gun permit denials; weapons offenses; and property crimes (larceny, breaking and entering, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, white collar offenses); to sexually related offenses (indecent exposure; sexual assault, crimes against nature, removal from sex offender registry); and violent crimes (domestic violence; assault; manslaughter; homicide, murder). Other legal issues that Arnold & Smith, PLLC criminal clients may be facing include restraining orders, restraining order and probation violations, expungements; appeals; and immigration issues related to criminal charges. Our criminal defense attorneys are passionate about ensuring that individuals empower themselves by being informed about their constitutional rights, and stand at the ready to fight in the defense of those facing criminal charges.





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