Saturday, June 17, 2017
Defining “reasonable doubt” to a jury has always been a difficult endeavor. On Friday, July 15, 2017, the jury in the Bill Cosby case asked the judge to clarify the meaning of this standard. At this point, the jury was deadlocked. The judge responded by giving the jury Pennsylvania’s standard jury instruction on the subject. I think the instruction is quite good.
Although the Commonwealth has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty, this does not mean that the Commonwealth must prove its case beyond all doubt and to a mathematical certainty, nor must it demonstrate the complete impossibility of innocence. A reasonable doubt is a doubt that would cause a reasonably careful and sensible person to hesitate before acting upon a matter of importance in his or her own affairs. A reasonable doubt must fairly arise out of the evidence that was presented or out of the lack of evidence presented with respect to some element of the crime. A reasonable doubt must be a real doubt; it may not be an imagined one, nor may it be a doubt manufactured to avoid carrying out an unpleasant duty.
I sometimes have asked my students to draft an instruction on reasonable doubt. They have never been very successful at the task.