CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, February 25, 2008

Yale Law School CrimProf James Whitman Writes "What are the Origins of 'Reasonable Doubt'?"

Whitman Yale Law School Ford Foundation CrimProf James Whitman recently wrote "What are the the Origins of Reasonable Doubt?"  Here is an excerpt:

As everybody knows, no person in the United States of America can be convicted of a crime unless that person’s guilt is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It would be hard to name a legal doctrine more familiar to the general public. For that matter, it would be hard to name a legal doctrine more basic to the American sense of justice. American criminal law would be unimaginable without the reasonable doubt standard. Indeed, the requirement of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is so fundamental that the Supreme Court has read it into our constitutional law, even though the phrase “reasonable doubt” appears nowhere in the Constitution.

But what exactly is proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”? Anyone who has served as a criminal juror knows that the rule is not easy to understand. There is always some possible uncertainty about any case. Exactly what kind of uncertainty counts as a legal “doubt”? Exactly when are legal “doubts” about the guilt of the accused “reasonable”? Jurors are sometimes understandably baffled. Even the some of the most sophisticated members of the legal profession find the question too difficult to answer.

The result is a troubling situation indeed. Once a jury has determined a person to be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that person’s fate is almost always sealed. Even the emergence of new evidence, like the evidence of DNA testing, may not be enough to reopen a criminal case. Yet judges and legal scholars have come to the conclusion that the phrase “reasonable doubt” can be assigned no definitive meaning. A moral philosopher might raise disturbing questions indeed about this state of affairs. How you can send somebody to prison, or even to death, on the strength of a rule that nobody understands?

Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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