On August 6, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Camden County case of State v. Keith Cuff. The principal issue under the kidnapping statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1, is whether omitting questions in the verdict sheet pertaining to the less serious kidnapping offense was plain error under the circumstances.
Justice Patterson wrote for a 5-1 majority of the Court. Justice Solomon did not participate in the decision. The majority held as follows: When the party alleging error failed to object at trial to the verdict sheet, this Court reviews the verdict sheet for plain error. State v. Galicia (2012). That standard requires that we determine whether the error asserted “is of such a nature as to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”
We recognize the importance of the verdict sheet as “an essential component” of the trial court’s “road map” for the jury’s deliberations. When multiple offenses are submitted to a jury, special verdicts are often helpful to an orderly deliberative process. We appreciate that “jurors are likely to refer, and refer often, to the directions on the verdict form.” State v. Nelson (2002). Thus, “we encourage completeness and consistency in the preparation of verdict sheets.” State v. Gandhi (2010).
The trial court’s instructions to the jury, however, serve as the jury’s primary guide as it considers the charges and the evidence. “A verdict sheet is intended for recordation of the jury’s verdict and is not designed to supplement oral jury instructions”). Thus, “[w]here we conclude that the oral instructions of a court were sufficient to convey an understanding of the elements to the jury, and where we also find that the verdict sheet was not misleading, any error in the verdict sheet can be regarded as harmless.”
The Court often cites precedent that the jury is presumed to follow the instructions that they are given. Here, more weight is placed on the judge’s oral instructions that are only recited once, as opposed to the written instructions that the jury can refer to repeatedly.