Jury Instructions Debated in Wisconsin High Court

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court grappled with the side-by-side notions of truth and reasonable doubt in oral arguments Tuesday, hearing debate over whether the language in jury instructions adequately informs jurors about reconciling courtroom evidence to the end of a verdict.

The arguments stem from the case of Emmanuel Trammell, who was charged and convicted of one count of armed robbery and one count of operating a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent in 2016.

Trammell did not object to the jury instructions at the time of trial. In a post-conviction motion, however, he argued the last two sentences of the instructions violated his constitutional rights because they incorrectly instructed jurors on the state’s burden of proof.

Those two sentences read: “While it is your duty to give the defendant the benefit of every reasonable doubt, you are not to search for doubt. You are to search for the truth.”

Trammell also cited two law review articles that questioned the “dual directives” toward both truth and reasonable doubt in those instructions.

The Milwaukee County Circuit Court ultimately denied Trammell’s motion. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals agreed, taking into account that the state’s high court had already rejected similar challenges the propriety of the jury instructions.

Trammell’s attorney Urszula Tempska argued Tuesday before the Wisconsin Supreme Court that the dual directives mislead jurors because they are “plainly and repeatedly told” to search for truth in relation to reasonable doubt without being given an idea of what reasonable doubt means.

Justice Daniel Kelly, resisting the idea that the search for truth in a courtroom and the idea of reasonable doubt are incompatible, offered, “Isn’t truth just shorthand for finding all the elements of reasonable doubt?”

Tempska stated that “jurors are to find whether the evidence presented in the courtroom” prove the stated allegations to near certainty, but that truth in the courtroom is not necessarily the same as truth outside it.

“‘Truth’ is not the juror’s job,” Tempska noted.

Justice Kelly did not buy this notion. “Where do you get that idea from?”

“Are you asking us to say as a court that the object of a court is not to search for the truth?” Kelly asked.

Tempska responded that “if you tell jurors to search for truth but don’t explain what ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is, then jurors will be misled,” positing that the search for truth encourages jurors to look outside the courtroom.

Justice Annette Ziegler bristled at the idea that Tempska’s thoughts about the jury instructions, which she considered “pretty clear,” require the court to assume that jurors are not following their instructions.

When Justice Ann Walsh Bradley asked whether the court should change the instructions in light of several sentences being questioned retroactively, Tempska responded that she does not “see the flood gates opening.”

Tiffany Winter, an assistant attorney general who appeared on behalf of the state, argued that the jury instructions are “beyond clear” when taken in their entirety “that juries are to give someone every benefit of the doubt.”

When Justice Kelly asked Winter what she thought of the studies Trammell cited in his motion, Winter replied that they are unreliable because they “set out to prove a point” that the state’s burden of proof is too low, questioning the studies’ impartiality.

In response to Justice Rebecca Dallet’s question of whether the studies should be taken seriously given the results they show, Winter added that one of the studies was not peer-reviewed and they have not been picked up by any other publications.

Winter questioned why the two studies Trammell referenced should be enough to throw into question the soundness of jury instructions that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has already upheld in previous challenges.

She stated in closing that “social science research should not decide what the law is” and that, in any case, Trammell waived his right to review because he did not object to the jury instructions in time.

Tempska rebutted that the jury instructions are commonplace enough that a reasonable person or attorney would not necessarily challenge them at the instruction conference.

Winter could not be reached for comment. Tempska said she did not have any comment to add.  

It is unclear when the Wisconsin Supreme Court will issue a ruling in the case.

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