Most Americans know that in criminal cases a defendant cannot be convicted of a crime unless the jury finds that the government (state or federal) has proven its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But just what is a “reasonable doubt” and where did this standard come from? A criminal defense lawyer Rockville MD trusts can help explain this terminology.


Interestingly, the words beyond a reasonable doubt are not found anywhere in the Constitution. Nor are these words an inheritance from the common law of England, from which so much of our legal system originated. The phrase emerged in the American colonies around the time of the Revolution. One of the earliest known examples of the phrase is said to be by then-attorney John Adams in his defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. The story may be apocryphal, but what is clear is that the phrase began in the late 18th century in the American colonies and was accepted throughout the United States by the early 19th century.


What does a “reasonable doubt” mean in practice? This is less clear. The courts have struggled with how to instruct juries, or even whether to instruct juries, on what is the definition of a reasonable doubt. Several federal courts, such as those in the Fourth Circuit, do not require jurors to be provided with a definition of a reasonable doubt. The theory is that the definition is either obvious, or simply cannot be defined in a helpful way. Most courts, however, do provide a definition. The problem is that their definitions are sometimes lacking. In Maryland, for example, the pattern jury instructions define a reasonable doubt as a doubt founded upon reason. That is a purely circular definition. The pattern instructions then go on to describe proof beyond a reasonable doubt as one that would cause you to act without reservation on an important matter of your business or personal affairs. Well and good – but sometimes people act quite impulsively in the personal affairs. They get married, have children, make purchases of expensive goods, and act in a variety of important matters without necessarily carefully weighing the pros and cons of their decision. Is that the best instruction the courts can come up with?


Social scientists have conducted experiments over the years on the level of comprehension that mock juries have of jury instructions. The results are not encouraging. At best, jurors seem to absorb about 75% of well-written jury instructions. The numbers decline precipitously with either poorly written instructions, or no instructions at all (remember the Fourth Circuit).


And yet, the picture is not completely bleak. Experienced trial attorneys will attest that the wisdom, the empathy, and the insight of twelve jurors is normally an inspiration. While the courts struggle to properly instruct them, they approach their jobs with seriousness and a sense of fairness, as well as a skepticism about government, that makes them the preferred finder of fact for any trial worth having.


Thanks to friends and contributors from the Law Office of Daniel J. Wright for their insight into criminal law.