What Does “Reasonable Doubt” Really Mean?

Anyone who grew up watching T.V. shows or movies about criminal prosecutions is generally familiar with the principle that a defendant is presumed innocent until and unless the prosecution proves his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Who could forget, for example, the riveting story in “12 Angry Men” about a jury’s deliberations in a capital murder case that appeared to be open-and-shut, with 11 of the 12 jurors ready to immediately vote guilty, only to be persuaded, in the end, by the lone holdout that the state failed to prove its case?

But what, exactly, does “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?
The United States Supreme Court upheld the following definition given by a trial court judge to a jury in California:

Reasonable doubt is defined as follows: It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything 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 the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.

Well, the Supreme Court, in the same decision, explains, “Proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ … is proof ‘to a moral certainty,’ as distinguished from an absolute certainty.”  In other words, while the State does not have to establish guilt with such absolute proof as to allow no other conclusion, its proof must be strong enough, convincing enough and clear enough that the jurors, recognizing the uncertainty of human affairs, are left fully satisfied that there can be no reasonable basis upon which to doubt that the defendant did, in fact, commit the crime of which she has been accused.

An interesting take on the subject is found in James Q. Whitman’s , in which he writes:

At its origins the rule was not intended to perform the function we ask it to perform today: It was not primarily intended to protect the accused. Instead, strange as it may sound, the reasonable doubt formula was originally concerned with protecting the souls of the jurors against damnation.

In the criminal trial of past centuries, there was more at stake than the fate of the accused. The fate of those who sat in judgment was at stake at well. In part this was because jurors had to fear vengeance on the part of the relatives of the convicted man. But it was also for religious reasons. Convicting an innocent defendant was regarded, in the older Christian tradition, as a potential mortal sin. The reasonable doubt rule developed in response to this disquieting possibility. It was originally a theological doctrine, intended to reassure jurors that they could convict the defendant without risking their own salvation.

Thus, to an extent, the “moral certitude” phraseology in the jury instruction might be interpreted as charging the juror that, before he votes to convict, he should be sure enough of his verdict that he would be prepared to defend it upon his arrival at the Pearly Gates.  (Well, if you look at it that way, I’ll bet you’ll want to take your time and deliberate carefully if you’re ever sitting on a jury in a criminal case!)

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