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Criminal Jury Instructions

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Case:  State of Tennessee v. Lynn Frank Bristol

Facts:  In a sex abuse trial, the trial court’s written jury charge failed to include instructions regarding the indicted offenses and several relevant definitions. However, the transcripts reflects that the oral charge differed significantly from the written charge and did include many of the missing components. The Defendant was found guilty and appealed.

Appellate Decision: Although the Defendant did not object to the written charge, the intermediate court reversed the convictions upon finding plain error from the trial court’s failure to comply with T.R.Cr.P. 30(c), which provides that the instructions “shall” be “reduced to writing” and “read to the jury.”

Review Granted:  November 19, 2021. The Court’s order granting review stated: “Additionally, the trial court is ordered to make a written determination of whether the written jury instructions transmitted originally with the appellate record, the written jury instructions transmitted to the Court of Criminal Appeals in a supplemental record, or some other version of written jury instructions accurately reflect the written instructions provided to the jury at trial. Tenn. R. App. P. 24(e), (g).”

Prediction:  Ben thinks the Supreme Court will reverse the intermediate decision and reinstate the convictions. Although there was a clear violation of Rule 30(c), it appears the jury did receive a full and correct charge orally, and Ben thinks the Supreme Court will apply a harmless error analysis to the facts of the case and determine that the jury would not have rendered a different verdict had the oral charge been properly provided in writing.