Cambridge Criminal Lawyer Explains “Reasonable Doubt”
The term “reasonable doubt” can be difficult to define, but as a concept it is understandable. Because of the potential severity of a criminal conviction – incarceration or even death – the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt was adopted long ago by our judicial system. If we as a society are going to take from a man everything he has and, possibly, everything he is ever going to have, we require jurors to be extremely confident in the individual’s culpability before returning a verdict of guilty.
Webster v. Commonwealth
In Webster v. Commonwealth, 59 Mass. 295 (1850), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial articulated the definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Though the Webster court attempted to offer an understandable and usuable definition for jurors, the court’s definition falls short. The Webster court focuses too much on what falls short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than properly characterizing proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, legal scholars and judges herald the Webster definition as the gold standard of legalize:
Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because every thing relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. If upon such proof there is reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary, but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt; because if the law, which mostly depends upon considerations of a moral nature, should go further than this, and require absolute certainty, it would exclude circumstantial evidence altogether.
Every crime, whether murder or shoplifting, is composed of elements, each of which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution fails to persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt of even a single element, the jury must acquit defendant. As the Webster court explained:
In order to warrant a conviction of a crime on circumstantial evidence, each fact, necessary to the conclusion sought to be established, must be proved by competent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt; all the facts must be consistent with each other, and with the main fact sought to be proved; and the circumstances taken together must be of a conclusive nature, leading on the whole to a satisfactory conclusion, and producing in effect a reasonable and moral certainty, that the accused, and no other person, committed the offence charged.
“Reasonable Doubt” Instruction Required in Massachusetts Courts
While Federal District Court judges have the discretion to instruct or not instruct juries on the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Massachusetts trial judges are required to define “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” for juries sitting on criminal cases. Our Supreme Judicial Court is so committed to jurors being properly instructed that, in defining the standard, judges are not permitted use analogies to personal decisions, compare reasonable doubt with the civil standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence), or attempt to better characterize reasonable doubt by giving examples of proofs falling short of the standard.
Reasonable Doubt vs. Juror Emotions
Although Massachusetts courts go to great lengths to correctly instruct juries on the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, jurors remain human beings, vulnerable to emotions stirred by ugly allegations and calculating prosecutors, more interested in convictions than allowing jurors to dispassionately and objectively weigh the evidence. Further, though cautioned repeatedly by the trial judge to refrain from reaching conclusions with regard to innocence or guilt prior to deliberations, jurors make up their minds long before the prosecution rests – and usually before being instructed on the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. Savvy, experienced criminal defense lawyers, therefore, do not rely on jury instructions to save their clients. The best criminal defense lawyers consider jury instructions, at least in the majority of cases, mostly irrelevant. Successful trial lawyers win trials through detailed opening statements, effective, creative and structured cross-examinations, and a better understanding of the emotions of everyday people, namely the jurors.