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”.

  • 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

    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