What is Reasonable Doubt?

With the recent media coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, many in the public have voiced their opinion on whether or not the state proved its cased beyond a reasonable doubt.  People may have different concepts as to what is a reasonable doubt.  But how do courts define reasonable doubt, and what are jurors told about reasonable doubt before they deliberate?

In Florida, there is a jury instruction which defines (or at least attempts to define) reasonable doubt.  Judges will read this instruction to the jury in any criminal case.  Here it is:

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.

Well that certainly clears up the confusion, right?  WRONG!

Most lawyers agree that this instruction is as clear as mud, yet this is the definition Florida jurors are given.  Because the term “reasonable doubt” is so vaguely defined, perhaps this is the reason many people disagree whether the state met its burden of proof in closely contested trials.

(Note–This is not the only instance of confusing language in jury instructions.  For another example, read the self-defense instruction.)

Disclaimer–This post is not intended as legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

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