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Error in Jury Instructions Leads to Retrial

Posted on in BGL Law
Error in Jury Instructions Leads to RetrialA simple matter of semantics can greatly impact the outcome of a trial. Such was the case in a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision, which remanded a criminal case for retrial due to an error in the instructions given to the jury. The decision recognized that the possibility of jury bias is enough reason to question the outcome of a trial, especially when both sides present compelling cases. The court said it must err on the side of caution to ensure that a defendant receives a fair trial.

The Case

The People of the State of Illinois v. Montana Sebby concerned a man charged with resisting a peace officer, which is a class 4 felony. A jury found the defendant guilty of the charge, and the court sentenced him to two years in prison. The defense appealed the decision, citing court error in its instructions to the jury. When questioning potential jurors, a trial court is required to inform them of the standards of innocence applied to the defendant. Illinois calls these the Zehr Principles, named after a 1984 Illinois Supreme Court case. They include that:

  • The defendant is presumed innocent;
  • The prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt beyond reasonable doubt;
  • The defendant is not required to present any evidence in his or her defense; and
  • The jury cannot presume guilt if the defendant does not testify.

Illinois rules require the court to ask potential jurors if they “understand and accept” those principles. However, the court asked the jurors if they “had any problem with” or “believed” those principles. An Illinois appellate court ruled against the defendant's claim of error, though the judges were divided in the decision.

Supreme Court Decision

The Illinois Supreme Court was also divided in its decision, but it favored the defendant in this case. The majority decision stated the defense only needed to prove that:

  • The trial court committed a clear error; and
  • The evidence for both sides is balanced enough that an error may have affected the outcome.

The state admitted to the mistake in questioning the jury but claimed it was trivial in its effect on the trial. It also claimed that the evidence clearly favored the prosecution. The majority decision said that the severity of the error did not matter and the evidence was equally compelling for both sides. In deciding to remand the case for retrial, the majority said that it was not determining whether the defendant was guilty or the jury was biased.

Criminal Defense

If you are facing criminal charges, an experienced attorney can make sure you receive a fair and unbiased trial. Schedule a free consultation with a McHenry County criminal defense attorney at Botto Gilbert Lancaster, PC, by calling 815-338-3838.



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