Document Type



Published in: The Jury Expert, volume 25, Number 1, 2013.


Data obtained from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003) indicate that 29% of adults have a Basic level of prose literacy. Prose literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to comprehend and use information from continuous texts, such as editorials, news stories, and instructional materials. In the current study we examined each state’s capital sentencing instructions for their readability using a highly reliable word-analysis tool. We found that reading levels of sentencing instructions significantly surpassed the reading comprehension abilities of American adults. All but three states’ instructions were above the twelfth grade reading level. In addition, legal principles embedded within the weighing language instruction were more difficult to comprehend compared to the aggravating or mitigating factors components of the instructions. By measuring the readability of instruction language and comparing it national literacy levels of adults, we provide an important explanation for poor comprehension of legal principles.