At the end of a civil trial here in New York, the judge must give the jury specific instructions on the law.
The judge will define certain legal terms such as the burden of proof and what is negligence.
He will tell the jury what they can and cannot do from a legal standpoint.
The jury collectively are the triers of fact. The jury determines who is more likely right than wrong.
The jury decides who is credibile and who is not.
The jury decides if the injured victim will receive compensation as a way to repay him for all of his injuries and harms he suffered becuase of a careless driver, company or even a doctor.
At the end of the trial, after all the evidence has been introduced and after all the witnesses have testified, the attorneys get to make closing remarks.
The defense attorney gives his closing remarks first.
The plaintiff's attorney, representing the injured victim always gets the last word in, besides the judge.
After the lawyers have made their closing arguments, the judge will ask the court officer to lock the outer door to the courtroom.
He does that not to keep people in the courtroom locked inside, but rather to keep other people out while the judge is explaining the law to the jury. He does not want any interruptions.
You would think that with all the years of schooling the judge has had along with all the years he has been a trial judge that his instructions would be crystal clear.
Why is it then that some people on the jury just don't understand what a particular legal instruction means?
It happens often.
It happens that the jurors are not familiar with the legal terminology and with the legal definitions.
When the jury is confused, it creates much tension during deliberations as some jurors may not know what is really expected of them.
If a juror is confused about a specific legal instruction the judge gave, can he ask the judge to clarify what he meant by that?
The answer is yes, he can.
He can raise his hand and get the judge's attention and ask him to clarify what he means.
If the jury has already been sent into their jury deliberation room and a juror has a question, then the juror will write a brief note to the judge. He will then hand it to the court officer who stays outside the door waiting.
The court officer will deliver the note to the judge.
The judge will read the note and then show it to all attorneys in the case.
A brief discussion will take place with the attorneys and the judge and the judge will formulate a way to clarify the legal instruction that was not clear.
The judge will bring the entire jury back into the courtroom.
He will then explain to everyone what the question was and provide another example or definition to the jury to clarify what he meant.
As an example...
Let's say there's no direct evidence showing that a hospital nurse gave an injection that the patient was allergic to.
Instead, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence confirming that the nurse gave this lethal injection.
Let's also say that the juror didn't understand the legal definition of circumstantial evidence.
The judge might use an analogy to explain it further.
"Imagine there's a glass of water sitting in front of you. It's full. You hear a noise behind you and you turn your head away from the glass of water. When you turn back to the water glass, you notice it has fallen over and all the water has spilled onto the table. You did not see exactly what caused the glass to fall and the water to spill onto the table, but you notice something strange.
Right there on the table is a beautiful bird sitting only two feet away from you. He wasn't there a moment before you turned away, but he's there now. You don't have any other reasonable explanation for how your glass full of water turned over, except that you connect this bird's presence on your table with having your glass of water turned over."
"You can naturally assume that somehow, this bird caused or contributed to the water being knocked over even though you did not actually see this bird knock it over."
That's what circumstantial evidence is.
Let me illustrate it using another story that you can relate to...
We have a cat named Billy.
He's an indoor/outdoor cat.
He's a beautiful black cat who is a rescue cat and fully neutered.
He's a little on the heavy side, but adorable nonetheless.
Despite Billy's girth, he is a swift and powerful hunter.
What does he hunt?
Birds of course.
He gleefully brings it to our front door as a present each time.
It's kind of disgusting since we then have to dispose of the dead bird.
One day we returned home from a family lunch.
Billy the cat approached us on the walkway to our front door.
He had white feathers all over his face.
Near the door were white bird feathers all around the bushes.
Yet, no matter how much we looked, we couldn't find the bird.
This was highly unusual.
What evidence did we have?
A cat who had white bird feathers all over his face.
A cat who was known to hunt birds.
Feathers around our front door.
A missing white bird.
No blood to be seen anywhere.
Here's what we didn't have...
A dead bird.
An eyewitness who could explain how our black cat had white feathers plastered all over his face.
Direct evidence to indicate that our house cat killed another bird.
But, what circumstantial evidence did we have to connect the dots and come to the conclusion that Billy must have killed another bird or at least wounded it?
We all came to the conclusion that Billy had an interaction with a bird and Billy was the victor.
We made assumptions based upon our common sense of what happens and what we know about our cat and his normal behavior.
So, getting back to the earlier question I asked in the headline...
If a juror does not understand the judge's legal instruction, he can ask the judge to clarify what he means and the judge will likely restate the instruction and give one or two examples to help the jury understand what he means.