648 S.E2d 354
A trial court's instructions to the jury must be a correct statement of the law and supported by the evidence. Jury instructions are reviewed by determining whether the charge, reviewed as a whole, sufficiently instructed the jury so they understood the issues involved and were not mislead by the law. A jury instruction cannot be dissected on appeal; instead, the entire instruction is looked at when determining its accuracy. A trial court, therefore, has broad discretion in formulating its charge to the jury, so long as the charge accurately reflects the law. Deference is given to a trial court's discretion concerning the specific wording of the instruction, and the precise extent and character of any specific instruction will be reviewed only for an abuse of discretion.
Syllabus Point 4, Guthrie, supra. Unfortunately, the majority then abandons the Guthrie
standard in favor of one in which this Court selectively dissects a trial court's jury
instructions, placing special weight on the trial court's last words to the jury. In support of
this last words standard, the majority resorts to reliance on an obscure New York case,
People v. Simpkins, 174 A.D.2d 341, 571 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1991), that has been largely ignored
by other courts and is completely at odds with Guthrie.
According to our well-settled law, [t]o trigger application of the 'plain error' doctrine, there must be (1) an error; (2) that is plain; (3) that affects substantial rights; and (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. Syllabus Point 7, Miller, supra. Further,
An unpreserved error is deemed plain and affects substantial rights only
if the reviewing court finds the lower court skewed the fundamental fairness
or basic integrity of the proceedings in some major respect. In clear terms, the
plain error rule should be exercised only to avoid a miscarriage of justice. The
discretionary authority of this Court invoked by lesser errors should be
exercised sparingly and should be reserved for the correction of those few
errors that seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the
Syllabus Point 7, State v. LaRock, 196 W.Va. 294, 470 S.E.2d 613 (1996). When this law is applied to the instant facts, it is clear that plain error is not present.
Certainly, the trial court could have better responded to the jury's inquiry by more fully addressing intent as an element of second-degree murder. I do not see, however, in light of the fact that the jury had already been properly instructed, how the trial court's failure to do so seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings or caused a miscarriage of justice.
Regrettably, the majority's decision will have a greater negative impact than merely reversing the conviction of a defendant whom the jury fairly convicted of second- degree murder. I am convinced that the majority's retreat from our settled law in Guthrie, in favor of one in which this Court carefully parses with a fine tooth comb each word of a trial court's jury instruction, will have several negative consequences. First, it will needlessly complicate the task of trial judges as they labor over each individual word in a jury instruction, fearful of this Court's hyper-technical review. Second, it will make trial judges more reluctant to address specific inquiries from juries by restating jury instructions in less than their entirety. Finally, it will result in more unnecessary reversals of valid criminal convictions.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated above, I dissent.