Saturday, September 12, 2009



Legal doctrine abounds with verbal formulae. In law school, students memorize these shibboleths. They are the “magic spells” that allow them to “correctly” analyze any fact pattern. They rarely get a chance to reflect on what these “spells” mean from a grammatical perspective, or even whether they are prudent. Rather, law school students act under immense time pressure; they can do little but learn the formula and move on the next one. I doubt that many lawyers ever really ponder famous “legal formulae,” either. But since leaving the profession, I think about them all the time. And I see that there is nothing intrinsically prudent or sacred about them. They are merely administrative tools intended to bring illusory order to the nebulous disorder of human experience.

Everyone knows the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It appears all the time in movies, plays and even rap songs. Jay-Z named his debut album Reasonable Doubt. It has a mythical ring to it; it sounds appealing, even majestic. But does anyone really understand it? What is it? People assume that lawyers and judges understand it. They even think that it leads to the truth. Yet this is error. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is an invention. It is a good invention because it seeks to protect individual liberty from wrongful criminal conviction. But it remains invention. It does not magically entitle judges and lawyers to find the truth.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a “standard of proof” that governs criminal trials in the United States. In 1970, the Supreme Court famously held that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause requires every State government to apply the standard in every criminal trial. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970). Unless the State proves “every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt,” said the Court, it denies the defendant Due Process. Id. at 364 (emphasis added). This is hopeful language. After all, “beyond a reasonable doubt” means that a jury must indulge virtually every inconsistency in the evidence in the defendant’s favor. If there is a “tie,” it goes to the defendant—and individual liberty. It forces the government to put all “reasonable doubt” to rest about the defendant’s guilt before it can take away his liberty—or life.

But today I am not writing about constitutional law. I wrote about the law on this subject as a law student. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” interests me now because it impinges upon much larger concerns, like reason, truth, evidence and belief. Unlike many other legal doctrines, this one deals with facts: What do we believe about someone? What “actually happened?” More importantly, how “certain” must we be before we condemn someone to prison or death? And because “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a “verbal formula,” it has grammatical weaknesses. Lawyers do not think about these things. They just look to see what courts said about past cases.

What is the real issue, then? The real issue is evidence at trial. The State seeks either to imprison someone or execute him. It charges him with a crime, a written definition encompassing certain “bad behavior.” To convict him, it must put forward evidence proving that his conduct falls within the written definition. The prosecutor, jury and judge were not there to see this alleged “bad behavior.” There might be rumors about it. Perhaps there are witnesses; perhaps not. For better or worse, those called upon to decide a defendant’s fate must evaluate evidence to formulate the “truth” about “what actually happened.” No juror actually sensed or perceived the alleged event. They must engage in second-hand observation and decide whether something happened. Evidence gives them sensory fodder with which to judge “the truth.” They might hear a witness’ account or see a video recording. They might hear about footprints, or bloody gloves or even confessions. Yet they might also hear that witnesses have an interest in condemning the defendant, or that they have poor eyesight, or that they were distracted, or that the police coerced a confession. All these things constrain their Herculean task: To decide “the truth,” even if they were not there to perceive it.

Yet juries cannot simply speculate on the evidence. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is an attempt to prevent juries from simply “imagining” things about the defendant. Rather, it forces them to look solely at the evidence. Remarkably, many courts over the centuries have not understood this, let alone the “everyday folk” who comprise juries. As recently as 1994, the Supreme Court dedicated an entire opinion struggling to explain what “reasonable doubt” actually means. Victor v. Nebraska; Sandoval v. California, 511 U.S. 1 (1994). There, the Court said that “reasonable doubt” does not mean “merely possible doubt,” but rather doubt that, “after consideration of all the evidence, leaves the jury with an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge against the defendant is not true.” Id. at 8 (quoting Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295, 320 (1850)). It also said that “reasonable doubt:” “[W]ould cause a reasonable person, in one of the graver and more important transactions in life, to hesitate before accepting certain facts as true…it is doubt that, after full and fair consideration of the evidence, leaves you with and abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the accused committed the crime charged…you may be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt yet be fully aware that possibly you may be mistaken…you may find a defendant guilty upon the strong probabilities of the case, provided they are strong enough to exclude any doubt of his guilt that is reasonable…it is an actual and substantial doubt.” Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. at 18.

Did the Court really need to spend so much time on the question? After all, it would have been easier to simply look at the phrase from a grammatical perspective. “Beyond” is a preposition that implies “movement past” a particular point. It implies linear motion: One moves along a path; one reaches a point on the path; one moves beyond the point. Anything before that point is not “beyond” the point. A jury can only convict a defendant if it decides that the evidence moves beyond “reasonable doubt” about his guilt. That is the magical point on the path. The evidence must move “past reasonable doubt” in order for the State to condemn the accused.

This is the point at which the Supreme Court should have considered “reasonable doubt.” The word “reasonable” appears everywhere in the law. Unfortunately, very few courts apply a consistent definition. In many cases, judges simply use the word to impose their own standards on certain behavior, namely, standards demanding steady living, hard work and “contribution to society with regard to the property rights of others.” Yet this “normalizing” definition really misses the point. After all, “reasonable” derives from “reason,” specifically, the human capacity to find truth through the senses. A person is “reasonable” if he believes only what his eyes, ears, nose and skin nerves tell him. It is “reasonable” to believe that snow fell last night if one awakes to see the ground covered in snow. It is verifiable. It is possible to infer the fact that snow fell while you slept from the fact that you see snow on the ground now. It is based on perceptible evidence. But it is not “reasonable” to believe that God exists, because no one sees God. Well, some people say they do, but do “reasonable people” believe them? No, they don’t. “Reasonable people” believe in their senses. They are empirical. They doubt anything that their senses do not perceive. For a person who trusts reason, “truth” is a matter of perception. If the person is not there to perceive an event, he listens to what others say about it, looks at physical residue concerning the event, then decides what “reasonably happened” based on things that can be perceived. This is “reasonable thinking.”

Reasonable doubt, then, is any doubt warranted by perceptible evidence. It rules out all speculation. It is purely evidence-based. The Supreme Court did not need to introduce extraneous concepts like “hesitancy” and “important life decisions” in order to explain “reasonable doubt.” It should merely have said that “reasonable doubt” refers solely to sensory evidence. It is doubt that arises from things we perceive. As long as the evidence permits us to doubt something, we have “reasonable doubt.” Doubt is not “reasonable” if we simply “imagine” it. And if we have “reasonable doubt” in any way, we have not moved “past” or “beyond” reasonable doubt. This is the grammatical way to understand the formula “beyond a reasonable doubt:” If we have it, we are not beyond it. We must acquit the defendant. But if we don’t have it and merely imagine it, we are beyond it. That means we must convict him.

I write all this because I think many lawyers and judges merely learn verbal formulae without seriously considering what the words mean. It is one thing to mouth phrases in order to score points on a test. It is quite another to genuinely ponder what those phrases mean in both grammatical and philosophical terms.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a compelling phrase for several reasons. For one, it reinforces the law’s commitment to “reason” above all else. There is no faith in the law. Spirit is irrelevant. There is only body, property, the senses and “tangible things.” Reason can govern these things; yet it is banal. After all, there is nothing remarkable or spiritually uplifting about arguing over who saw what and who owes whom what dollar amount. These are the concerns of both reason and the law.

Second, “beyond a reasonable doubt” represents the law’s attempt to sort out facts. Courts have an immensely hard time doing this because facts are elusive. No matter what courts say, facts are never determinate. Facts merely represent belief based on second-hand evidence. When courts compose long “fact sections” in their opinions, they do not recount “exactly what happened.” They are merely reciting what the court below them “believed” after applying an arbitrary standard. Put simply, courts do not like talking about facts. Facts are messy. And in the end, they are arbitrary. Once one court believes a fact, it is almost impossible to alter that fact on appeal. This has nothing to do with “truth.” It has everything to do with “administrative convenience” and “interpretation.” Judges don’t reopen factual disputes because they inevitably degenerate into “he said she said” wars long after the event. Judges get to say: “OK, this is what happened,” even if their version is not really true. Interpretation is power: The power to announce the truth, even if untrue.

Reason can help us answer many questions about our existence. I trust it in all situations in which it is valid. I think it is valid in criminal law, because criminal law addresses matters to which reason applies: External behavior that can be “directly perceived” or “inferred.” It does not involve faith or belief; at least, in should not. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a good standard in criminal trials because it forces juries to apply only their reason, not their passions or their prejudices. Sensory evidence produces belief or doubt in the mind. When it produces doubt in a criminal case, the defendant must go free. In this sense, the standard favors liberty. As long as jurors understand what the words “reason” and “beyond” mean, they should never have a problem understanding the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

But perhaps this is exactly the problem. After all, jurors—like all human beings—do not always use their reason at times when they should. Perhaps it is too much to expect that people will always be reasonable.

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