Reasonable the key word

August 02, 2011

Reasonable doubt. It's the standard by which we are judged in the criminal courts in this country, but it's a standard that's neither easy to define nor easy for prosecutors to establish.

Hung juries, like the one that failed to reach a verdict last week in the case of a suspected high ranking member of the Bloods street gang, are the hallmark of a legal system that struggles with what it means to have reasonable doubt.

The fate of the defendant in this case remains an open question. He is presumed innocent in our system until the prosecution can present enough evidence to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt, and the prosecutor's office says it will try again.

This case, like all hung jury cases, is exemplary of a difficulty faced by the justice system when it comes to two simple words: reasonable doubt.

Judges in the Harford County courts have, over the years, taken the time to point out that reasonable doubt is not the same thing as beyond any doubt, noting that if there is reasonable doubt, logically there also is unreasonable doubt.

Further complicating the matter is the reality that there are only two types of evidence, circumstantial and eyewitness. Circumstantial is everything from finger prints and DNA links to records and electronic evidence that put the suspect at the place of the crime at the time of the crime. But circumstantial evidence is a moniker that sometimes makes it relatively easy to dismiss.

And eyewitness testimony isn't necessarily reliable, even when the witness is certain beyond any doubt.

Part of the problem prosecutors face is the disconnect between the fictional high tech of modern TV shows and the mundane reality of most criminal cases. It's easy to blame TV and the degree to which we, the ultimate jury pool, expect to see courtroom drama when we end up in a jury. The reality is, however, prosecutors need to find ways to make sure the juries they're presenting to are made aware of the differences between TV and reality. Otherwise, it becomes necessary to reconsider the notion of reasonable doubt, trial by a jury of peers and being innocent until proven guilty.

Doing away with any of those principles is not a good option, and there's no reasonable doubt about that.

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