Wednesday, May 26, 2010
This review describes James Whitman's argument that the beyond a reasonable doubt standard for conviction in Anglo-American criminal law was developed to solve a moral and theological dilemma arising from the medieval change from clergy-directed trials by ordeals to the secular jury trial. Whitman writes that the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, like the jury unanimity rule, was designed primarily to assuage what he calls moral doubt, the concern that a decision-maker might condemn himself in the eyes of God by wrongfully convicting an accused of a capital offense. Whitman contends that this concern with decision-maker salvation was greater than any concern with an erroneous determination of the facts and that the greatest challenge for early modern decision-makers was not resolving contested facts but overcoming fear of the spiritual consequences of condemning another human being to death. Whitman contends that this makes the beyond a reasonable doubt standard ill-suited to the challenges of modern litigation, where the hard cases involve fact-finding and decision-makers generally do not fear for their souls in rendering a legal verdict. After considering this argument in both legal and theological terms, the reviewer develops a suggestion of the book’s author, that the early juror experience of "fear and trembling" in judging the most serious crimes might have a useful application to contemporary American criminal justice with its predilection for long terms of incarceration, especially by mandatory sentencing laws.