Getting to the Point: Attempting to Improve Juror Comprehension of Capital Penalty Phase Instructions

Smith, A. & Haney, C. (2011). Getting to the Point: Attempting to improve juror
comprehension of capital penalty phase instructions. Law & Human Behavior, 35, 339-350.

This research examined the effects of several versions of capital penalty phase instructions on juror comprehension. Study One documented the impact of California’s recently implemented “plain language” instruction. It showed that although the new instruction has clear advantages over the previous version, significant comprehension problems remain. Study Two evaluated several modified instructions designed to enhance comprehension. Participants heard either a standard patterned instruction or one of two alternatives—a psycholinguistically improved instruction, or a “pinpoint” instruction using case-related facts to illustrate key terms—in a simulated death penalty sentencing phase. Persons who heard modified instructions demonstrated higher levels of comprehension on virtually every measure as compared to those in the standard instruction condition.