Judges won’t provide a reasonable doubt definition for the jury.
Telling the jury that it was up to them to determine the definition of reasonable doubt was not a per se error nor reversible error.
To see other cases where things went wrong in Illinois trials go to this resource page.
Defendant was convicted of retail theft. He took several bottles of liquor from Jewel-Osco valued at over $300.
Juy asked: “[W]hat is the legal definition of reasonable doubt?” Answer given was: “It is for you to determine.”
Was it per se error and a violation the defendant’s due process rights to instruct a jury that it is up to them to determine for themselves the definition of reasonable doubt?
Reasonable Doubt Definition, What Does The United States Supreme Court Have to Say?
In 1994, the United States Supreme Court considered whether the jury instructions defining “reasonable doubt” in two state criminal cases violated due process. See Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 6 (1994). This decision established that:
“The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is a requirement of due process, but the Constitution neither prohibits trial courts from defining reasonable doubt nor requires them to do so as a matter of course. Indeed, so long as the court instructs the jury on the necessity that the defendant’s guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used in advising the jury of the government’s burden of proof. Rather, ‘taken as a whole, the instructions [must] correctly conve[y] the concept of reasonable doubt to the jury.’ ”
Id. at 5 (quoting Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140 (1954)).
This Is What Trial Courts Have to Worry About
The United State’s Supreme Court then summarized the key issue:
“The constitutional question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instructions to allow conviction based on proof insufficient to meet the standard.”
In assessing this likelihood, the court should consider other instructions or comments to the jury that occurred during the trial. The instructions given must be put in the context of the trial before it.
The Appropriate Standard
Thus, the standard to be applied in cases such as the one before us is this:
Taken as a whole, were the instructions to the jury such that there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood those instructions as allowing a conviction under a lesser standard than proof beyond a reasonable doubt?
This is not a per se result. It will always involve a balancing, weighing, and analysis of the contexts in which instructions are delivered to a jury. It is a very fact specific test.
What Illinois Says About a Reasonable Doubt Definition
Illinois courts strongly discourage providing a reasonable doubt definition to a jury. See People v. Speight, 153 Ill. 2d 365, 374 (1992).
“The law in Illinois is clear that neither the court nor counsel should attempt to define the reasonable doubt standard for the jury.” Reflecting this sentiment, there is no recommended jury instruction that would provide such a definition. See Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Criminal, No. 2.05, Committee Note 78 (“The Committee recommends that no instruction be given defining the term “ ‘reasonable doubt.’”).
Nevertheless, it is also equally clear that providing a jury with a definition of reasonable doubt does not necessarily constitute reversible error. There is no per se error when a definition is given or given incorrectly.
Three Recent Cases With Reverses
People v. Turman, 2011 IL App (1st) 091019
The definition of reasonable doubt given to the jury in this case was:
“It is for the jury to collectively determine what reasonable doubt is.”
That court reasoned that the conviction had to be reversed because that statement to the jury allowed the jury to use a standard that in all likelihood was below the threshold of a reasonable doubt standard. The court did not explain why this likelihood was so high. In other words, no clear application of the standard described above.
People v. Franklin, 2012 IL App (3d) 100618
The reasonable doubt definition given to the jury here when they asked for one was:
“It’s what each of you individually and collectively, as 12 of you, believe is beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This court reversed the conviction for a similar reason. The reviewing court said that the trial court’s instruction created a reasonable likelihood that the jury had convicted the defendant based on a standard of proof less than beyond a reasonable doubt. This court described it as a structural error requiring reversal.
Thus, Franklin found that anytime a definition for beyond a reasonable doubt other than the words themselves is given, per se reversible error occurs. This is the Third District not the Second District.
People v. Downs, 2014 IL App (2d) 121156
Here, the jury sent a note to the court. The court asked: “What is your definition of reasonable doubt[:] 80%[,] 70%[, or] 60%?” The court’s response was, “We cannot give you a definition…it is for you to define…”
It appeared that there was pretty good evidence that the jury fundamentally misunderstood the appropriate legal standard for beyond reasonable doubt. In light of the jury’s use of percentages, the danger that the jury would apply a lesser standard to convict was obvious. The trial court, by not correcting the jury’s mistake, only compounded the error.
The jury’s question clearly showed that there was a reasonable likelihood that it used a lesser standard in convicting defendant.
First & Third Districts Got It Wrong
This court said that to the extent that Turman and Franklin held that simply instructing jurors that they must determine the meaning of “reasonable doubt” is (1) a violation of the Illinois Supreme Court’s proscription against providing a definition or (2) reversible error per se, they were unpersuasive.
Decisions of one district of the appellate court are not binding on other districts. Thats how judges say other judges got it wrong. Ouch.
Results In This Case
Thus, under Illinois Supreme Court precedent, it remains the law in Illinois that defining reasonable doubt is discouraged but is not per se reversible error.
Nevertheless, giving an instruction on the concept is not necessarily prejudicial or reversible error, so long as the instruction does not improperly minimize the State’s burden of proof or attempt to shift that burden to the defendant.
A court must consider the totality of the circumstances and determine whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied a lesser standard than beyond a reasonable doubt.
In considering whether a particular jury instruction violated the defendant’s due process rights, “the proper inquiry is not whether the instruction ‘could have’ been applied in an unconstitutional manner, but whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury did so apply it.”
Here, the court’s response to the jury was unquestionably correct. A trial court’s instruction that the meaning of “reasonable doubt” is for jurors to determine is a correct statement of Illinois law.
The court considered the instructions that were given to the jury. The court looked at whether there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury convicted under a lesser standard than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It found no error.
The refusal to supply a definition of reasonable doubt requires that jurors wrestle with the term’s meaning. This is not a bad thing. The American legal system is premised on the belief that jurors represent the conscience of the community and will act diligently and thoughtfully in applying the law.
Absent any concrete demonstration of error or confusion, jurors should be trusted to apply the beyond a reasonable doubt standard appropriately.
In short, any attempt to interpret, define, or even comment on the term “reasonable doubt” risks reversal. Even stating something as seemingly innocuous as “it is for you to decide” carries risks. Such an instruction could be read as directing a jury that it must try to define or interpret the objective meaning of the term. On the other hand, it could be read as vesting a jury with the discretion to interpret the term to mean whatever it wants it to mean (like something less than beyond a reasonable doubt).