The reasonable doubt definition is the most common thing that a jury wants to know. The criminal court system in Illinois officially does not have a definition to give them. In podcast Episode 010 of The Criminal Nuggets Podcast, I discuss how courts are answering this question for the jury.
The results in People v. Thomas, motivated Episode 010.
Why Isn’t There a Reasonable Doubt Definition in Illinois
In Illinois there is no acceptable definition for the term reasonable doubt.
We define almost everything else for the jury. Such basic terms like “possession” and “knowing” all have definitions.
You can bet at some point in a trial the jury is going to ask for a reasonable doubt definition. Why don’t we define beyond a reasonable doubt?
The case that I discuss in Episode 010, People v. Thomas, has given me some more insight.
Appellate Court Says The Term Speaks For Itself
It’s hard to define the term!
It is actually quite difficult to think of words that would be helpful to the jury and not distort the law in some way. The entire concept of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is such an important principle in the American criminal justice system that screwing up that definition means a defendant may not get a fair trial with the highest legal standard.
So, in Illinois we just tell a jury that they must hold the State to a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is all they are told. They are not officially given a reasonable doubt definition.
However, juries have always asked for a definition, and they will keep on asking.
There have been recent court decisions that have reversed convictions because of the way the court answered that common jury question.
“What is the definition of beyond a reasonable doubt?”
Here are the three different ways, in these cases, that the judge and the attorneys answered the question for the jury.
- “It is for the jury to collectively determine what reasonable doubt is.”
- “It’s what each of you individually and collectively, as 12 of you, believe is beyond a reasonable doubt.”
- “We cannot give you a definition…it is for you to define…”
In that last respond, the juries note said this:
“What is your definition of reasonable doubt[:] 80%[,] 70%[, or] 60%?”
So, it looked like the jury may have applied a “probability” theory for the reasonable doubt definition. Courts hate that too. Plus, it really looked like that jury was accepting something as “low” as 60%.
Why Were These Responses Wrong?
The reviewing court did not like the three answers given above. If a jury interpreted the responses literally, it means they could technically define the State’s burden any old way they wanted.
They could theoretically, say that proof was provided beyond a reasonable doubt if a quarter comes up “heads” after a flip.
They wouldn’t get that arbitrary in the jury room. I hope. But there is still a danger that a jury could be satisfied with a burden lower than 50%.
So technically, no, a jury is not allowed to define “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” any old way they want. The State has to remain with a high burden of proof.
Now What is Going On
Well, the Second District Appellate Court is basically saying this:
We don’t like answers that tell a jury that that they can come up with their own definition, but we ain’t gonna keep reversing convictions when that is what the jury is told.
The appellate court said that they are going to look for evidence that a jury actually used a very low standard before they reverse a case. If there is no evidence that the jury got it wrong, conviction will be approved. If there are no signs that a lower burden was applied, then it does not matter that a jury was not given an approved response to their request for a definition of beyond a reasonable doubt.
We want jurors to wrestle with this idea. We want them discussing it for themselves. That is the whole point of a jury trial.
Seriously Then, What The Heck Should We Tell Them When They Ask
In trying to figure out the best way to respond to a jury when they ask for a reasonable doubt definition, It may be helpful to rethink this whole problem.
The relevant question in this discussion is not: “What is the correct definition of beyond a reasonable doubt?”
The important relevant question, instead, is this:
“What is the appropriate legal standard with which the jury should evaluate the State’s case?”
It is the answer to the last question that truly matters. What is important is that the jury is holding the State to the highest legal standard in our system.
When juries are asking for the definition of beyond a reasonable double. They should be reminded that they must hold the state to the legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Maybe the judge and the attorneys can try answering this way:
You have all the instructions required to reach a verdict in this case, the State must be held to the burden of proving defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Do you have other ideas on what is the best way to respond to the jury’s note? Let me know in the comments below.