High court unable to agree on 'reasonable doubt'

March 23, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For two centuries, legions of American jurors have puzzled over what the judge meant by saying they could convict an individual of a crime only if they were convinced of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." Yesterday, the nine Supreme Court justices could not agree on the right meaning for that phrase.

Amid repeated concessions by the justices that confusing definitions often are given by trial judges, the court expressed some qualms about those definitions but refused, in five separate opinions, to spell out clearly what the Constitution requires.

Ruling in two murder cases that led to death sentences in California and Nebraska, the court upheld one conviction unanimously and the other by a 7-2 vote. In both, the death row inmates lost their constitutional challenges to definitions trial judges gave for "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Juries in the United States since at least the 1790s have been instructed on the "reasonable doubt" standard for guilt. But it was only 24 years ago that the Supreme Court made that a constitutional requirement in every criminal case.

Since then, the court has struggled to find a valid definition. Three years ago, a unanimous court could agree only on what was not a valid approach.

Some judges around the country have grown so frustrated with that task that they refuse any longer to give any explanation to the jurors, leaving them on their own. The Federal Judicial Center has suggested a fairly simple definition, saying that the phrase means "proof that leaves you firmly convinced" of guilt.

In the California case before the justices yesterday, the trial judge had borrowed, almost word for word, a definition first laid down by a Massachusetts judge in 1850. It said, among other things, that "reasonable doubt" is "not a mere possible doubt" but is doubt based upon "moral evidence." It added that there should be no guilty verdict unless jurors believed the criminal charges "to a moral certainty."

That got the court's unanimous approval, although Justice Harry A. Blackmun added his usual refusal to endorse the death sentence in that case; he has said he no longer supports capital punishment.

The California case involved a Los Angeles man, Alfred Arthur Sandoval, given a death sentence plus three life prison terms for killing two men in a gang-related fight and then killing a man and a woman because they linked him to the other killings.

In the Nebraska case, the judge said "reasonable doubt" means the kind of doubt that would cause "a reasonable and prudent person" to pause before believing something is true, plus belief "to a moral certainty" in guilt, plus "actual and substantial doubt" of guilt, plus belief that guilt was a "strong probability."

That passed constitutional muster by a 7-2 vote of the justices in the case of Clarence Victor of Omaha, who was sentenced to die for the throat-slashing murder of the 82-year-old woman for whom he did gardening.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the court's opinion.

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