One of the most misunderstood and difficult term to explain is the concept of reasonable doubt. Yet, the requirement that guilt of a criminal charge be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt dates at least from our early years as a Nation. I am sure that the idea was contemplated centuries beforehand.
However, the requirement of the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is misunderstood in two important ways.
First, based on my multiple interviews with jurors, many people simply ignore the concept of reasonable doubt in criminal cases. They are more concerned with trying to figure out if the defendant committed the crime. While I fully understand this approach and do not fault anyone serving on a jury earnestly seeking the truth, I believe that this is the wrong approach to take under Georgia law. I firmly believe that if juries apply the reasonable doubt standard, the truth will reveal itself anyway.
Second, the term “reasonable doubt” is very difficult to clearly define.
To illustrate the difficulty in grasping what is a reasonable doubt, you can look no further than what the General Assembly has provided: OCGA 24-14-5 says:
“Whether dependent upon direct or circumstantial evidence, the true question in criminal cases is not whether it is possible that the conclusion at which the evidence points may be false, but whether there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the mind and conscience beyond a reasonable doubt.” I am not even sure that I know what that means.
During criminal jury trials, the trial judge will charge the jury on reasonable doubt. There is one description that is always used that probably provides for the clearest explanation.
At the end of a trial the judge will tell the jury (and I am paraphrasing) “If your minds are wavering, unsettled, or unsatisfied, that is the doubt of the law and you should acquit the defendant.” However, as my prosecutor friends often point out, the judge will also tell the jury that reasonable doubt is not proof beyond all doubt or to a mathematical certainty.
During my closing arguments, I typically focus on the “wavering” language mentioned above. I also point out to the jury that reasonable doubt is simply a doubt for which a reason can be given.
A common example of this would be the inability of an alleged victim to identify the defendant. That is certainly a significant doubt for which a reason can be given. Under Georgia law, I believe that the jury should acquit a defendant under these facts.
We are all fortunate to live in a country where people charged with criminal offenses have so many protections. One of the most important protections, if applied properly, is the requirement for the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.