Reasonable Doubt Explained to Potential Jurors

In English law, defining reasonable doubt is very important in criminal trials. Jurors must find a criminal defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The proof in civil matters is a much lower standard, that of the “balance of probabilities”. The difference between the two proof standards is because whilst civil penalties are generally financial, criminal penalties affect a person’s liberty and in the past, depending on the charge, a conviction could result in execution. Democratic jurisdictions all over the World, which follow the English law model, also view reasonable doubt as an important concept in criminal law.

Before 1935, it was thought that in murder cases that all that the prosecution had to prove was that the victim died due to the defendant’s act and that it was then the defendant’s duty to prove his innocence, or satisfy the jury that there were circumstances enabling them to bring in a manslaughter verdict. This was settled by the House of Lords in the Woolmington* case. Woolmington appealed a conviction for his wife’s murder. The original trial judge had directed the jury that the prosecution only had to show that Mr. Woolmington caused Mrs. Woolmington’s death. Woolmington then had to prove her death was an accident or that there were mitigating circumstances, which would enable them to pronounce a manslaughter verdict. He admitted that the bullet, which killed his wife, had come from a gun in his charge, but that he had squeezed the trigger accidentally whilst trying to persuade her to return to him by threatening to shoot himself.

The judge directed the jury in line with the thinking that the only thing that the prosecution must prove was that the bullet came from Woolmington’s gun and that he pulled the trigger. The jury gave a murder verdict. On appeal, when the case was left to the jury, they brought in a manslaughter verdict. The House of Lords ruled in Woolmington that the prosecution must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, no matter the case, and that to do so they must establish not only that the defendant committed the act but that in the circumstances, he intended to commit the crime for which he is standing trial. The court said if at the end of a case and considering all the evidence, if the prosecution had not proven the case beyond reasonable doubt, the jury must acquit the defendant.

Explaining what “reasonable doubt” means to juries has proved difficult for some judges over the centuries. However, in simple terms it means that the prosecution has proved, in all the circumstances of the case, that no other logical scenario could possibly have happened.

 A juror must listen carefully to both defence and prosecution cases and all the evidence that each offers before deciding. You do this in ordinary life; listen to two sides of an argument and then come to a sensible decision. For example, if you are dealing with two children, who have been fighting out of sight, you ask each child what happened and you will get two different versions. Then you balance each version and decide the scenario logically.

Where there is strong circumstantial evidence, you must be certain that the only logical inference is the one that the prosecution case proves. For example, if little Jimmy is alone in his bedroom, holding a blue crayon, and there are blue drawings all over the bottom of the bedroom wallpaper any sensible person would assume that Jimmy has drawn on the wallpaper.

However, if Alice and Fiona are in the room with Jimmy, it may, or may not, have been the child holding the crayon, who drew on the wall. If Jimmy, the child holding the crayon, is three feet tall and the drawings are at four feet six on the wall, unless the child stood on something, he could not have reached the necessary height to draw on the wall. In other words, there is reasonable doubt that he was the guilty child.

However, if Alice and Fiona are both five feet tall, it is logical that one of them drew on the wall and placed the crayon in the smaller child’s hand, before you entered the room. If one child has signed her name, it is possible and logical that she has written on the wall but you cannot say that the other child has, or has not written on the wall, unless you find other incontrovertible evidence that he has done so. For example, if she is mad a about a pop group and the pop groups name is written on the wall, it is likely that she also wrote on the wall, but there is another logical explanation, or reasonable doubt. It could be that the other child wrote the pop group’s name to get the other child into trouble. A parent would have to weigh this piece of evidence in conjunction with other circumstances, such as the children’s characters, and how likely it is that the other child would deliberately try to get the child into trouble.

Beyond a reasonable doubt means that the prosecution must prove that the defendant, currently before the court committed the crime and that his offence contains all the legal elements, do not worry about those the judge will tell the jury what the prosecution must prove. The prosecution must also prove that there is no other logical explanation for the incident. Juries give the verdict on the facts, not the law – that is for the Judge. The whole point about juries is that they are composed of ordinary men and women applying their ordinary common sense judgment to decide what happened. It has long been a tenet of English law that it is better that the guilty go free than the law punishes an innocent person.

A juror’s only duty is to apply ordinary everyday common sense to the evidence that prosecution and defence place before you. Remember that it is always for the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty. Listen to the evidence put forward by prosecution and defence and do not decide until you have heard all the evidence and the judge’s summary. During this summary, he or she will tell you the law and the points you should consider. You must then decide whether in all the case’s circumstances, whether there is one, or several, logical explanations for all the events. Beyond reasonable doubt means that there is no other logical explanation for the event, other than the one the prosecution gave. Wilmington’s conviction for murder was reduced to manslaughter, on appeal because although he caused his wife’s death, and did not deny doing so, the prosecution could not, and did not prove that that he did so deliberately. The explanation that the defence gave that it was an accident was logical and could have happened. The law only punishes those whom the prosecution proves guilty. 

*Woolmington v DPP A.C. 1935