Mark McCown: Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is often unclear

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 9, 2022

Dear Lawyer Mark: Every time I see a criminal case on the news, or watch a TV show about one, they always say that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What does it mean and what law says that the jury has to find it? — Puzzled in Pedro

Dear Puzzled: While requiring a higher degree of evidence for criminal convictions has been set forth since ancient times, the concept of having the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for trial courts dates back to at least the late 1790s in the U.S. Supreme Court cases from the late 1800s onward show that the court assumed that criminal convictions required proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but believe it or not, the U.S. Supreme Court did not explicitly state that convictions require that degree of proof until the 1970 case of In re Winship.

The court in that case first found that it is required in criminal cases, and then said the same standard must be used for juvenile delinquency cases. Until then, some states used lesser degrees of proof for juvenile cases.

Even though the standard is set forth, the Supreme Court never defined what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means.

In fact, the court noted in the 1880 case Miles v U.S. that “attempts to explain the term ‘reasonable doubt’ do not usually result in making it any clearer to the minds of the jury.”

In Ohio, Revised Code section 2901.05 requires that the following definitions be given by the judge to the jury:

“Reasonable doubt” is present when the jurors, after they have carefully considered and compared all the evidence, cannot say they are firmly convinced of the truth of the charge.

It is a doubt based on reason and common sense. “Reasonable doubt” is not mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs or depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. “

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of the person’s own affairs.

Clear as mud, right?

In fact, trial lawyers often give examples in their arguments to the jury about what it means, so that the jury can hopefully understand it better.

In short, it means that the jury should be firmly convinced that the defendant committed the crime based upon the evidence presented.

If 38 eyewitnesses identify a bank robber, who wasn’t wearing a mask, and the surveillance video shows the defendant’s face, but the defendant’s mother swears he was with her all day, is it possible that she is correct and everybody else is wrong? Yes, because we’ve all seen other people that look exactly like someone we know.

But is that minuscule possibility enough to make a jury reasonably doubt the defendant’s guilt based upon common sense? No.

Therefore, the state would have met it’s burden, and proved him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thought for the Week: “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.” William Shakespeare

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown in response to legal questions received by him. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Avenue, Ironton, Ohio 45638, or e-mail it to him at The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.