What is reasonable doubt?
Here is a direct copy and paste from the Florida Supreme Court’s webpage on standard jury instructions. At the end of each trial, part of the instructions to the jury are on reasonable doubt and what it means. Here are those jury instructions that a jury would hear after a trial (For the Whole Link click here)
3.7 PLEA OF NOT GUILTY; REASONABLE DOUBT; AND BURDEN OF PROOF: The defendant has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe the defendant is innocent. The presumption stays with the defendant as to each material allegation in the [information] [indictment] through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt. To overcome the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which the defendant is charged was committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime.The defendant is not required to present evidence or prove anything. Whenever the words “reasonable doubt” are used you must consider the following: It is recommended that you use this instruction to define reasonable doubt during voir dire. State v. Wilson, 686 So.2d 569 (Fla. 1996).
A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable. It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof. A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence. If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty.
Is there a more common-sense definition?
There is, but the Court System is not always open to hearing lawyers attempt to rewrite the jury instructions or explain scenarios where reasonable doubt applies. Therefore, you will usually hear the directly-quoted portion above when you go and sit on a criminal case as a jury member. However, for fun let’s break down some of the actual jury instructions, listed directly above in quotes, and try to put some common-sense explanations behind them:
“A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt.”
So what does this mean? It means that if the state presents a case and the state proves every single element of the crime, it means that the jury doesn’t have to create crazy far-fetched ideas in their head to try to come up with reasons as to how the Defendant is innocent. If it’s bizarre, unrealistic, or forced then you are thinking too hard and it’s probably a guilty verdict. BUT, if you think about the evidence, and the Defendant appears guilty, BUT in the back of your head you think “hey you know I think he’s guilty…… but there a chance he’s telling the truth……um…..his defense is not perfectly believable but I can realistically see where that might have happened…. the Defendant seemed like he’s a bit truthful, probably avoided some questions but had a bit of honesty in him….hmmmm…i’m like 95% sure he’s guilty but there is a chance he’s telling the truth, …..” Then THAT is NOT GUILTY. Because that is a reasonable doubt.
“A reasonable doubt is one which is not stable but one which waivers and vacillates.”
So what does this mean? It means that if you walk back into the jury room after hearing all the evidence and you ask yourself whether the state has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt. You look through the evidence one time. After refreshing your memory on the evidence you ask yourself if you can say that there is not a single reasonable doubt in your mind to the Defendant’s guilt. If you hesitate and need to ask more questions and need to go over the evidence again, and think there might be evidence that could help clarify….then the state HAS NOT PROVEN THEIR CASE. Period. It is all too frustrating when a jury comes back guilty after sitting in deliberations for five + hours.
There is no way that five hours of deliberations and a guilty verdict match to the very instructions ordered by the court. “DOES NOT WAIVER OR VACILLATE.” Clearly if it took you 5 hours to find him guilty your belief system was WAIVERING. This is an example where it is up to a lawyer to explain the law, to explain reasonable doubt. There is no doubt situations where people will be out days trying to make a decision. However, that simply does not match with what the law says.