The doubts in reasonable doubt

If you look up the term “reasonable doubt” on the Internet ... they all have one thing in common: They’re difficult to understand.


I am probably as familiar with the Casey Anthony trial as the average American. I did not watch the case as it unfolded on television, nor did I read a lot about it in the media. I caught the inevitable news reports on it or read a story here and there in my hometown paper, but my acquaintance with the arrest and prosecution of the young Florida mother was neither extensive, nor exhaustive.

Like many officers, past and present, I don’t find watching court cases particularly entertaining. Perhaps it stems from years of being called to testify in court and subsequently spending hours listening to the technical wrangling between the prosecutors and defense attorneys. I know from experience how tedious a lot of these trials can be, and I don’t really consider a trial entertainment. In fact, the idea that a trial draws such slavish public interest is a bit baffling to me, but I guess it’s a case of different strokes for different folks.

However, I can see some good coming out of the Anthony case, and not only in the form of proposed legislation (the legislation, for those who haven’t been paying attention, would require individuals to report a missing child within 24 hours and a child’s death within one hour). I can see how prosecutors and jurists might want to address the whole issue of reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind.

If you look up the term “reasonable doubt” on the Internet, in addition to miscellaneous media projects of the same name, you also find tons of definitions and applications of the term and they all have one thing in common: They’re difficult to understand.

Here are a few that I found:

“The level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime.”

“This means that the proposition being presented by the prosecution must be proven to the extent that there could be no ‘reasonable doubt’ in the mind of a ‘reasonable person’ that the defendant is guilty.”

“Lack of proof that prevents a judge or jury to convict a defendant for the charged crime.”

“A threshold of proof in criminal cases in most modern criminal law systems which requires the trier of fact to be sure, not certain, of the accused’s guilt, before convicting.”

How confusing are all those answers? Very, I think. And I think the jurors in the Casey Anthony case probably had a great deal of trouble understanding what constitutes reasonable doubt.

I have heard many commentators on the case say they don’t believe the jury understood the concept of reasonable doubt. I agree, but I’ll take it one step further: I don’t think anyone — even attorneys — really get it. In fact, I think the concept of reasonable doubt is wishy-washy and open to individual interpretation. The term needs to be more concretely defined, in my opinion.

If there is another positive outcome from the Casey Anthony case, it is that after watching this jury come to a decision the public may now better understand how fickle juries are. While the jury system may be the backbone of our judicial system, a jury’s thinking is influenced by individual backgrounds and cultures. Other influencing factors: One juror browbeating the others, a general misunderstanding of the legal terms and too much emphasis on one piece of evidence over another, more important one.

If good can come from evil, then perhaps this trial will make the American public see how tough it is to take a case to a jury, and at the same time spur the court system to make the concept of “reasonable doubt” easier for juries to apply.

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