Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




A substantial volume of research (e.g., Charrow & Charrow, 1979; Elwork, Sales & Alfini, 1977, 1982) suggests that jurors do not understand the often-convoluted language of standard jury instructions. Some states have recently simplified their instructions, but others continue to debate whether change is beneficial. This study was designed to investigate whether "plain language" jury instructions lead to improved comprehension. College students listened to either new, plain language Minnesota jury instructions or older Minnesota jury instructions addressing the same topics. Participants then took a written comprehension test covering legal rules contained in the instructions. Participants also completed a Nelson-Denny vocabulary test (Brown, Bennet, & Hanna, 1981) and provided demographic information. No significant treatment group differences were found for overall comprehension scores. Vocabulary scores were significantly correlated with comprehension scores for both groups of subjects. The results suggest that a juror's verbal proficiency is more important in predicting comprehension of jury instructions than the language style of the instructions. Also, response patterns for some items suggest that people often maintain preconceived notions of legal rules despite clear instruction to the contrary.