As most people are aware, a person cannot be found guilty of a criminal offense in the American criminal justice system unless the prosecution proves them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard of proof is the highest burden of proof in our legal system. But what exactly does reasonable doubt mean? The U.S. Constitution does not provide a definition of what level of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt is.
“What is reasonable doubt?” is a question jurors often face when they go back into the jury room to deliberate on the evidence they have heard and seen during a criminal trial. It has been my experience that in a close trials, jurors will often return just such a question to the judge. They will ask the judge to define “reasonable doubt” so as to guide them as to what level of proof is required. In Illinois, there is no jury instruction which provides a definition of what exactly constitutes reasonable doubt and what level of certainty of guilt must be met for a guilty verdict to be appropriate. Attempts by prosecutors or defense attorneys to give a hard line definition of reasonable doubt are objectionable. The attorneys can argue that certain testimony or lack of evidence have meant the State did or did not prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt” but are not allowed to try and actually define what level of certainty a juror msut have. Further, if a judge attempts to define reasonable doubt as being anything but a self- defining term, the case may result in a mistrial or be overturned on appeal.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines reasonable doubt as the following:
Reasonable doubt.The doubt that prevents one from being firmly convinced of a defendant’s guilt, or the belief that there is a real possibility that a defendant is not guilty. ● “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard used by a jury to determine whether a criminal defendant is guilty. In deciding whether guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must begin with the presumption that the defendant is innocent. See BURDEN OF PERSUASION.
“Reasonable doubt …is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.” Commonwealth v Webster, 59 Mass. (5 Cush.) 259, 320 (1850) (per Lemuel Shaw, J.).
“The gravamen of Lord Goddard’s objection to the formula of ‘reasonable doubt’ seems to have been the muddle occasionally created by an impromptu effort to explain to a jury the meaning of this phrase. A simple solution would be to refrain from explaining it, relying on the common sense of the jury. As Barton J. said in an Australian case, ‘one embarks on a dangerous sea if he attempts to define with precision a term which is in ordinary use with reference to this subject-matter, and which is usually stated to a jury without embellishment as a well understood expression.’ However, some modes of embellishment seem to be unobjectionable. There is probably no harm in telling the jury, as some judges do, that a reasonable doubt is one for which a sensible reason can be supplied.” Glanville Williams, Criminal Law 873 (2d ed. 1961).
The State of California provides jurors in criminal trials with the following jury instruction defining reasonable doubt, “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you with anabiding conviction that the charge is true. The evidence need noteliminate all possible doubt because everything in life is open tosome possible or imaginary doubt.” CalCrim 220. It is my belief that if Illinois would adopt a similar jury instruction, the instruction would go a long way towards relieving any confusion in juror’s minds regarding exactly what the degree of certainty needs to be for a guilty or not guilty verdict to be appropriate.
Unfortunately, until Illinois adopts an actual jury instruction defining reasonable doubt, what constitutes reasonable doubt will remain a murky and often misunderstood area of the law by the very people tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of a fellow member of the community.
I hope that after reading this you have a better understanding of the importance of what the definition of reasonable doubt is. If you have further questions, please visit my website at www.il-crimlaw.com and complete my online submission form.
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Miller Law Offices represents clients throughout the entire state of Illinois, including, but not limited to, the cities of Peoria, Pekin, Bartonville, Morton, Washington, Eureka, Pontiac, Cambridge, Dunlap, Bloomington, Normal and cases in Peoria County, Henry County, Livingston County, McLean County, Tazewell County, Knox County and Woodford County.
Article Author: C. Matthew Miller
- Matthew Miller is the sole practitioner at Miller Law Offices, P.C. He has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer and the American Society of Legal Advocates as a Top 40 Criminal Defense lawyer Under 40 in the State of Illinois. Mr. Miller concentrates his practice in Criminal Law, DUI, Criminal Record Expungements, Divorce and Child Custody.