The reasonable doubt question is answered, once and for all, by the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Illinois Supreme Court has put to rest the question of how to answer when the jury asks for a definition of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Meaning of Reasonable Doubt
Here in Illinois, we do not provide a jury instruction on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. We just don't do it.
On it's face that is kind of weird because we define everything else. We tell them what “knowing” means, we define “possession” and all these other terms.
But when it comes to one of the most important questions that the jury has to ponder. We take a pass.
Why Don't We Do It?
“Illinois is among the jurisdictions that do not define reasonable doubt. This court has long and consistently held that neither the trial court nor counsel should define reasonable doubt for the jury.” ¶ 19.
The idea is that the term speaks for itself. Any attempt to further define it will itself lead to confusion and error. We want the jury to wrestle with the term as part of their deliberation process.
We don’t define it for them beyond telling them it is the legal standard they must apply to find the defendant guilty.
The Reasonable Doubt Question
I have talked about this issue numerous times on this podcast. Here are some links to previous discussions and blog articles on this topic:
Obviously, I have been all over this topic because the courts have been making decisions relating to the issue. See People v. Gashi for the most recent reversal of a conviction because of a “wrong” response given to the jury. Any time there are reversals of a conviction due to inaccurate jury instructions, you bet attorneys will talk about it.
I'm no different.
The “Reasonable Doubt Answer” Game
It is a doubt that is reasonable.
These are the games we were left playing. You see, the court has an obligation to answer legal questions yet we have a system that strongly discourages any further attempts to define the legal standard that is applicable.
But it all ends now.
Reasonable Doubt Question Answered
The Illinois Supreme Court has ended the game. In this case, involving a murder trial the jury sent a note back to the parties asking about reasonable doubt.
What is your definition of reasonable doubt, 80%, 70%, 60%?
The trial court replied with a note of his own saying:
We cannot give you a definition it is your duty to define.
The appellate court reversed. It said that the jury was clearly thinking in terms of percentages and even went as low as 60%. The trial judge had an obligation to ensure that they did not apply something less than beyond a reasonable doubt.
Well, now the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that this response was the correct response.
In a 10 page ruling, the court has answered this question once and for all and has put the question to bed.
All the cases before this one that – have said it was wrong to answering the jury’s request for a definition with something along the lines of “you must define it” – are now themselves wrong and overruled.
It is now acceptable to tell a jury they must define the term for themselves. Now, obviously I would wait for the question. But when it comes, this will now be the “go-to” answer.
See How I Was Preparing For the Dreaded Question
I went to great lengths to round up and put in my trial notebook different ways to answer the question. Click below if you want to see what I came up with. Basically, I looked at what other jurisdictions were doing (the ones that provided a definition), and I talked to my smart friends.
Even though I had the cheat sheet, really I was not looking forward to the question in an actual trial. Actually, my strategy was to pray I never got the question from the jury.
Juries always ask.
Now, all of it can now be replaced with the confidence that we can tell them they are to define the term for themselves. This answer will not lead to a reversal.
I think I may be done with this topic!