Understanding The Beyond A Reasonable Doubt Standard

In drug distribution prosecution, First Circuit rejects challenge that the trial court was required to define the beyond a reasonable doubt standard; circuit notes that some attempts to define the standard are not helpful in guiding the jury, in United States v. Fields, _ F.3d _ (1st Cir. Nov. 2, 2011) (No. 09-1108) (per curiam)

In presenting evidence, the quantum of proof can be dispositive. In criminal cases, the Supreme Court has held “that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). The First Circuit recently considered whether the trial court erred in failing to define what constitutes beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the case, the defendant was prosecuted for distributing cocaine base within 1000 feet of a school. Before giving the jury instructions, the trial judge informed the parties that it was his practice not to define the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. The court underscored the necessity of this standard for the jury. On appeal, the defendant claimed the failure to provide a definition was error.

The First Circuit affirmed the trial court, concluding no definition was mandated. The circuit precedent had previously noted that a definition was not required. Fields, _ F.3d at _ (citing United States v. Rodriguez-Cardona, 924 F.2d 1148, 1160 (1st Cir.) (“This court has frequently expressed its displeasure at reasonable doubt instructions that refer to personal decision-making as the standard. We have emphasized in the past, and do so again here, that reasonable doubt does not require definition.”) (citation omitted), cert denied, 502 U.S. 809 (1991); see also United States v. Wallace, 461 F.3d 15, 30 (1st Cir. 2006) (same citing Rodriguez-Cardona); United States v. Ademaj, 170 F.3d 58, 66 (1st Cir.) (“Under our precedents … the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to define ‘reasonable doubt.’”), cert denied, 528 U.S. 887 (1999)). The circuit noted that "[t]he term reasonable doubt itself has a self-evident meaning comprehensible to the lay juror," and "[m]ost efforts at clarification result in further obfuscation of the concept." Fields, _ F.3d _ (quoting United States v. Olmstead, 832 F.2d 642, 645 (1st Cir. 1987), cert denied, 486 U.S. 1009 (1988)).

The circuit further noted that it was “far from clear that common glosses ("firmly convinced"; "not a fanciful doubt") help the jury much and some have been successfully argued by defense counsel to lessen, rather than reinforce, the need for strong evidence of guilt.” Fields, _ F.3d at _. Finally, the circuit noted that the Supreme Court had concluded that "the Constitution neither prohibits trial courts from defining reasonable doubt nor requires them to do so as a matter of course." Fields, _ F.3d at _ (quoting Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994)).

The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is not readily defined. It serves to remind the jury of the higher quantum of proof that is required in criminal cases before a conviction may be returned by the jury. The recent Fields decision notes that while the trial court may provide a definition to the jury it is not required to do so.

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