On-The-Record Ruling Request Regarding Jury Instructions

In Commonwealth v. Hendricks, 376 Pa. Super. 381, 546 A.2d 79 (Pa. Super. 1988), trial judge rejected counsel's request for an on-the-record ruling regarding jury instructions. A panel of this court held that a new trial was warranted because the court's violation of Rule 1119 "rendered meaningless" appellant's closing argument. 546 A.2d at 83. The Hendricks court noted that Rule 1119(a) was patterned after Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 30, the purpose of which is "to require the judge to inform counsel in a fair way what the charge is going to be, so that they may intelligently argue the case to the jury." Hendricks, 376 Pa. Super. at 385. Relying on federal case law interpreting Federal Rule 30, the Hendricks court held that "an inquiry into the appropriateness or correctness of the proposed jury instructions is irrelevant." Id. Instead, "the primary focus of the rule should be a determination whether the defense was prejudiced for tailoring its closing argument to instructions that ultimately were not given to the jury." Id. Our reading of the Hendricks case leads us to conclude that prejudice is indeed a mandatory component of a Rule 1119 inquiry. The excerpts set out above support such an interpretation, as do other portions of the Hendricks opinion. For instance, the Hendricks court quoted federal case law when it stated that "failure of the court to comply with Rule 30 requires the granting of a new trial if 'counsel's closing argument was prejudicially affected thereby.'" Id. (quoting United States v. McCown, 711 F.2d 1441, 1452 (9th Cir. 1983)). Further, the Hendricks court analyzed in great detail the jury instruction requests made by counsel and the closing argument made to the jury, drawing a nexus between the court's error and counsel's specific statements. Finally, the Hendricks holding is quite clear: "Accordingly, we conclude that the court's failure to inform counsel of its ruling on the requested points for charge prior to closing arguments and the jury instruction, was prejudicial to appellant's defense and warrants that a new trial be granted." 546 A.2d at 83. In light of all of these factors, we hold that Rule 1119 relief is not warranted unless prejudice has been established.