What Is Reasonable Doubt and What Does It Mean?

August 17, 2018

The jury in the federal trial of Paul Manafort recently asked the court a few questions specifically about the legal concept of reasonable doubt. (See the Washington Post article about it here.) So, it seemed like a good time to talk discuss it in my blog, too.

Reasonable doubt can be a little enigmatic, and jurors (and clearly the general public, sometimes even attorneys) often have a difficult time understanding exactly what it means. The serious concern with that is that this bedrock legal principle will be misapplied in a criminal trial and either a guilty person will walk free or worse, an innocent person will be convicted.

For that very reason it’s critical that every member of a jury accurately understand the concept of reasonable doubt and be able to correctly apply it to the deliberation process. Unfortunately, courts and attorneys are very reluctant to simply rephrase the legal instruction or definition of reasonable doubt if and when jurors have questions about it because that can lead to reversible error which is something every judge wants to avoid. So at the end of the day we’re all pretty much stuck with the definition of reasonable doubt specific to our jurisdiction.

Here in New York State, Reasonable Doubt is defined, in part, as follows:

The law uses the term, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” to tell you how convincing the evidence of guilt must be to permit a verdict of guilty. The law recognizes that, in dealing with human affairs, there are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty. Therefore, the law does not require the People to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt. On the other hand, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is probably guilty. In a criminal case, the proof of guilt must be stronger than that. It must be beyond a reasonable doubt.

A reasonable doubt is an honest doubt of the defendant’s guilt for which a reason exists based upon the nature and quality of the evidence. It is an actual doubt, not an imaginary doubt. It is a doubt that a reasonable person, acting in a matter of this importance, would be likely to entertain because of the evidence that was presented or because of the lack of convincing evidence.

Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you so firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt that you have no reasonable doubt of the existence of any element of the crime or of the defendant’s identity as the person who committed the crime.

This definition is taken directly from the New York Criminal Jury Instruction (CJI2d[NY]) which can be found, along with all other instructions, on the New York Courts Website.

When jurors do ask for clarification, the most I’ve seen a judge depart from the standard jury instructions to assist the jury in understanding the concept is similar to the court’s response in the Manafort case, which is typically something along the lines of “reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason. The government is not required to prove guilt beyond all possible doubt.” Sometimes the judge may add that “reasonable doubt is not ‘unreasonable doubt.’”

But what does that mean in the real world? As some additional form of assistance, the New York reasonable doubt jury instruction goes on to say that:

Whatever your verdict may be, it must not rest upon baseless speculations. Nor may it be influenced in any way by bias, prejudice, sympathy, or by a desire to bring an end to your deliberations or to avoid an unpleasant duty.

Not super helpful, but during the jury selection process the attorneys and the judge will also advise the jurors that they are free (and in fact encouraged) to use their own life experience in evaluating evidence and credibility of witnesses to determine if reasonable doubt exists; jurors are frequently told that “trials do not happen in a vacuum.”

So perhaps the best way to sum up the concept of reasonable doubt, at least in my opinion, is that it is a doubt of the defendant’s guilt based upon your interpretation and assessment of all the evidence presented at trial when viewed through the lens of your life experience and determination of what is reasonable.

And all you need is one, by the way. One reasonable doubt in your mind about the defendant’s guilt. Once you have that one single reasonable doubt the law requires that you vote “not guilty.” Don’t be swayed by other jurors. If you have a doubt and you’re confident it’s a reasonable one, hold on to it with both hands and defend it till the end. Don’t give in just to end the trial or because other jurors may be getting upset with you. By defending your reasonable doubt you are performing your civic duty to perfection; you are literally ensuring that our system of justice works. Don’t give up.

A very good attorney I know often boils reasonable doubt down to this simple yet effective explanation for jurors to help them get their head around the idea, which is good way to wrap this article up:

“Reasonable doubt is reason to doubt.”

If you have been charged with a crime, call Carpenter Law today at (845) 493-1002 to schedule a free consultation, or email Todd@CarpenterLawNY.com.