What Does 'Reasonable Doubt' Mean?

The currently ongoing Conrad Black trial is the jumping off point for TIME Magazine’s recent article “The Benefits of Doubt,” which discusses the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. (Hat Tip: Anne Reed at Deliberations)

The article highlights a serious issue confronting all criminal defense practitioners: what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” really mean, and how do you convey that to a jury? Unfortunately, it is very imprecise.

…in practice, reasonable doubt may make convictions too easy. At least half a dozen studies have found that when the prosecution's case isn't airtight, juries often interpret "beyond a reasonable doubt" to mean, in effect, probably guilty.

In one study, prospective jurors said they would be willing to convict on a 60% chance that the suspect had committed the crime.

Sixty percent! And possibly as low as “more than fifty percent”, if the jury uses a “probably guilty” standard. That’s frightening.

I’ll post more soon on some effective voir dire/jury selection techniques for maximizing your chances that a jury will truly hold the government to “proof beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Trackbacks (0) Links to blogs that reference this article Trackback URL
Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Daniel M. Ryan - April 19, 2007 2:11 PM

That article certainly explains why jury consultants are in such demand: given that finding, making the defendant(s) likable becomes important.

Conrad Black is known to have ticked off two different Vice-Chancellors in the Delaware Chancery Court, in 1982 and 2004. It'll be interesting to see how he, the other defendants and their counsels fare with the jury.

- Daniel M. Ryan,

Bruce W. Cobb - October 13, 2007 7:02 PM

The definition of "beyond a reasonable doubt" remains an important issue in criminal jurisprudence. However, I take issue with the commentator that a
definition where evidence which
leaves you "firmly convinced" is adequate. That's the standard for "clear and convincing" which is a lesser standard than the one required for criminal conviction.Yet, it does have a lot of appeal. In voir-dire, I try to explain to the jury the differences. I would like to write on true meaning of "beyond a reasonable doubt". It's a shame we can't define it in Texas state criminal cases anymore.

Donna - January 16, 2008 8:56 PM

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but reasonable doubt doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether or not a jury believes someone is guilty or not - it is a basis of proof of evidence presented, meaning that it relies on the premise that the evidence, has been presented beyond a reasonable doubt. That jury must believe, that no other reasonable cause exists to explain what has happened. This supports the jurisprudent standard of innocent until proven guilty - the defense does not have to make a case - the prosecution does. They must present each element of guilt without leaving room for an alternate explanation or reasonable, alternative belief. So - is it not the real problem that juries are not properly instructed as to this matter. They believe it rests solely upon THEIR opinion - and that is wrong. The doubt standard rests upon the facts presented, and if the prosecution not only presented clear and convincing evidence (albeit circumstantial any more these days), but that the defense didn't walk up and prove otherwise. Case in point - person caught with child pornography on their computer, and the prosecution abuses the law by misleading a jury to present experts that validate two separate facts: the computer was owned by the defendant, and the computer possesses child pornography. Without being able to actually prove the defendant knew anything, the prosecution relies on misleading, additional, circumstantial evidence to convince the jury of guilt (such as showing images of child pornography to turn the jury into a bunch of defendant-haters. Now, without consideration for facts, the defendant is guilty and the jury cannot be swayed. But, in truth, the defense should be able to walk up and say: prosecution didn't prove to you [my client] did it or knew about it, did they? Or, "Doesn't matter if the defendant is a so-called computer expert, prosecution didn't prove that he knew the files were there, did they?" and that should be it - reasonable doubt, end of story. Even better, is the argument against hacked computers. A hack proves the defendant was not in control, aka. reasonable, alternative explanation, and the prosecution can't present, 'evidence,' to counter it.

Post A Comment / Question Use this form to add a comment to this entry.

Remember personal info?