In a jury trial, the jury renders a verdict. Before the jury deliberates on its verdict, the trial judge instructs the jury on the law that the jury is to apply to the facts of the case. If a judge misstates the law in giving the instructions, then the jury's verdict may be overturned on appeal. The legitimacy of the jury verdict depends in large measure upon the correctness of the instructions. Judges are understandably cautious in giving jury instructions.
In most jurisdictions, judges use "pattern," "model," or "standard" jury instructions. These instructions are generally compiled by the jurisdiction's supreme court. The instructions represent language that the appellate court has approved. If a judge follows the language of the pattern jury instructions, then presumably the instructions will withstand appeal.
Before giving instructions to the jury, the judge holds a conference with prosecution and defense counsel. The judge, the prosecution, and the defense propose and argue which instructions to give, and whether they need to be modified. An erroneous inclusion, exclusion, or modification of an instruction may lead to the verdict being overturned.
Since the conclusion of Florida v. Zimmerman, there has been much public scrutiny of the jury's verdict. Considering the grave interests involved, this scrutiny is certainly appropriate. It would be appropriate to consider the jurors' actions in the context of what the judge instructed them to do.
Florida's jury instructions are available online. The instruction on self-defense is set out below. The judge would have given many other, standard instructions in addition to the self-defense instruction. For example, every charge to the jury would include an instruction on the burden of proof. However, the self-defense instruction seems to be the one that is of foremost importance in this case.
I do not know what, if any, modifications the trial judge made to the pattern jury instructions. I have edited the instruction only in three ways. First, I deleted parenthetical instructions to the judge. Second, I deleted citations to cases and statutes. Third, I deleted sections that appeared to be irrelevant to the specific case. I have probably modified the instruction less than the judge would have.
An issue in this case is whether the defendant acted in self-defense.
It is a defense to the offense with which Zimmerman is charged if the death of Martin resulted from the justifiable use of deadly force.
"Deadly force" means force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.
A person is justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself, or the imminent commission of a forcible felony against himself.
However, the use of deadly force is not justifiable if you find:
Zimmerman initially provoked the use of force against himself, unless:
The force asserted toward the defendant was so great that he reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and had exhausted every reasonable means to escape the danger, other than using deadly force on Martin.
In good faith, the defendant withdrew from physical contact with Martin and clearly indicated to Martin that he wanted to withdraw and stop the use of deadly force, but Martin continued or resumed the use of force.
In deciding whether defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used.
The danger facing the defendant need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.
Based upon appearances, the defendant must have actually believed that the danger was real.
There is no duty to retreat where the defendant was not engaged in any unlawful activity other than the crimes for which the defendant asserts the justification.
If the defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
In considering the issue of self-defense, you may take into account the relative physical abilities and capacities of the defendant and Martin.
If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether the defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find the defendant not guilty.
However, if from the evidence you are convinced that the defendant was not justified in the use of deadly force, you should find him guilty if all the elements of the charge have been proved.