Monday, July 11, 2011

How Reasonable is Reasonable Doubt?

     Defined in Criminal Procedure: Law and Practice 8th Edition, Reasonable doubt is defined as:
     "Such a doubt as would cause a juror, after careful and candid and impartial consideration of all the evidence, to be so undecided that he or she cannot say that he or she has an abiding conviction of the defendant's guilt".

     Well, that's all fine and dandy, but what does it mean? Does it mean we judge them? No. We do not place a judgement on their character, manner of dress or upbringing. It means we doubt what they say, or what they don't say. We doubt their actions and their intent. We doubt whether or not they were charged with a crime. But what is reasonable? 

     During criminal law class, we had a guy who will remain nameless but carried the phrase, "reasonable guy" throughout the semester (thanks for taking the jokes, wherever you are A.M.)  He received the name during our discussion of reasonable doubt. For a person to be reasonable, their thoughts would be categorized as would anyone whose thoughts are that of reasonable mind. Basically, not to shock their conscience with information but that which can be rationalized through life experiences, and proven through evidence.

     Ask yourself this question? Is what they are claiming something that could happen? Has it happened to me? Has the evidence shown that more than likely the events occurred as the State claims? Does the evidence (whether physical or circumstantial) outweigh the thought that this could not have happened the way the defense is claiming it happened? What does your gut tell you?

     The last question is one that I go back to whenever I'm faced with a decision that I can't seem to take on my own. Women call it intuition, men call it a gut feeling... I call it your inner conscience saying, "hey, something doesn't add up... Take the people out of it. Look at it again."

     Sometimes a jury will do this. Follow all instructions and really deliberate the case. Sometimes, they are so tired, so burnt out, they want a quick fix - they go with the popular vote of the jury and that is the decision they role with. While it often happens, no one knows for sure what happens in the jury room. 12 citizens one day, 12 village idiots the next.

     But LaVonda, why discuss this? Because when 12 people are selected as a jury of your peers, you would hope they would want the truth just as bad as the next 12 people. However, that doesn't always happen. There are other factors to consider.  What type of jury is needed? If it is a capital murder case, you would need a jury that is Death-Qualified.

     Death qualified juries are legal in the US. To be a death qualified jury, there are several aspects to cover. In short, (from text) Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968) "the U.S. Supreme Court held that jurors cannot be removed, even if by state law, merely because of general scruples against capital punishment. Doing that denies the accused of the right to an impartial jury. However, the Court added that a juror may be excluded "for cause" if it is "unmistakable clear" that he or she would automatically vote against the death penalty if sought by the prosecutor or if the juror could not be impartial in the determination of the defendant's guilt. 

     In Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986), the Court affirmed this ruling in Witherspoon when it held that removal for cause of jurors whose attitudes toward the death penalty would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties at the punishment (penalty) phase" is constitutional and does not violate the Sixth Amendment right of the accused to an impartial jury. The result of the two cases were a death qualified jury, meaning a jury that is conviction prone because those unalterably opposed to it are removed "for cause."

     Another issue is Jury nullification, for example. Jury nullification is basically a jury agreeing the defendant is guilty, but decides either the penalties are too severe for the crime committed or in general. But this is not something new. Jury Nullification has been around since the days of slavery when juries from the northern states would not find a person guilty in court for helping slaves escape. Nor would juries find people guilty for selling alcohol during the prohibition era. Furthermore, jury nullification is legal and is still (though seldom) practiced in our nation.

     Could the defense play on this practice? Absolutely. If you have a defendant who is guilty and want to keep them out of jail, during jury selection, you would strike and challenge any prospective juror who is for the death penalty or life in prison. If you get enough people on the jury that is against the death penalty, you have a higher chance of acquittal. Sound familiar?

     During the Casey Anthony Trial, the jurors were sequestered for 36 days total before a verdict was reached. But they only deliberated for less than 11 hours. Did they take the time to review the evidence? Did they talk to each other about the facts of the case? Did they all want to go home... I can't answer any of these, but their decision to vote for acquittal raises some questions. Especially with the facts of the case and the evidence, no matter how circumstancial it is.  To me, it's obvious the jury was ready to go home, so they all thought, I don't think she deserves death because there is no solid evidence that puts her at the scene of the crime and nothing that shows she killed her daughter. Well, that whole reasonable thing comes in to play. How could she not be responsible for the death of her daughter by not reporting her mission for 31 days?
*UPDATE* A couple of jurors are now stating they thought she was guilty. Well it's a little to late for that!
     Is there any repercussion from jury nullification should the verdict be an acquittal? Nope. Your bill of rights in the US Constitution (Amendment V), guarantees you will remain acquitted on those specific charges and cannot be tried again for that same crime in a court of law. In addition you are protected by your right under the same amendment against self-incrimination (pleading the 5th). A defendant has the right not to testify during his or her trial by pleading the 5th. However, if he or she takes the witness stand and testifies, the defendant has 'waived' his or her rights to the 5th amendment. They cannot take the stand and then plead the 5th.

     So what does all this do with reasonable doubt? This specific topic is under the 'umbrella' of justice. Reasonable doubt still cannot be completely defined. Because each person has a different way of reasoning and understanding. During Judge's Instructions, the judge will try to the best of his ability to give understandable instructions to help the jury understand. This is a process that is yet to be achieved in my opinion. After the disagreements between the state and the defense, the instructions are so broad, reasonable doubt could be the sky is fuchsia and the grass is dark blue and it pass the juries inspection without a hitch.

     The best way to define reasonable doubt is this: The evidence (physical and circumstantial) outweighs the defenses story of what really happened and sits more in truth with the state. If you can say yes to this answer, then there is not enough doubt to find the defendant innocent. And vice versa, if you can say no, then the defendant did not do the crime to which he or she is charged.

     It is my goal to broaden your perspective of the justice system. Our nation has been alive for some time, but our justice system is still in it's infancy. Treat it with gentle hands and do not be afraid. It's your protection, your right and your responsibility.

     Until tomorrow,


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