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”.