The Pennsylvania jury in the Bill Cosby trial has been deadlocked for five days and asked the judge for the meaning of the term “reasonable doubt” as in “beyond reasonable doubt.” Based on my service on four juries, I suggest that lawyers and legal observers misunderstand how the typical citizen-juror thinks about the concept. Two years ago while a juror in a “criminally negligent manslaughter” case, a single juror held out over the concept “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He said “I think the defendant is guilty but I always have “reasonable doubt” about serious questions. Therefore, if the test is “beyond that point,” I vote “not guilty.” To him, the key term seemed to be BEYOND not “reasonable” in the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt.” Yet, whenever I’ve heard judges and lawyers talk about the concept they focus on “reasonable” not on “beyond.”
Interestingly, a different juror had trouble with “criminally negligent.” She said “he was negligent, certainly, but I can’t see that young man as a “criminal.” (This was most likely a case of stereotyping and racial profiling—the defendant was a college student dressed in a white shirt and tie.”
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
If the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.
The term connotes that evidence establishes a particular point to a moral certainty and that it is beyond dispute that any reasonable alternative is possible. It does not mean that no doubt exists as to the accused’s guilt, but only that no Reasonable Doubt is possible from the evidence presented.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof that must be met in any trial. In civil litigation, the standard of proof is either proof by a preponderance of the evidence or proof by clear and convincing evidence. These are lower burdens of proof. A preponderance of the evidence simply means that one side has more evidence in its favor than the other, even by the smallest degree. Clear and Convincing Proof is evidence that establishes a high probability that the fact sought to be proved is true. The main reason that the high proof standard of reasonable doubt is used in criminal trials is that such proceedings can result in the deprivation of a defendant’s liberty or even in his or her death. These outcomes are far more severe than in civil trials, in which money damages are the common remedy.