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Defining 'Reasonable Doubt'? Appellate Court Tells Trial Courts to 'Let It Be'

At the California Appellate Report blog, Shaun Martin points to the recent case of People v. Moore as the latest example of why the appellate courts really, really wish the trial courts would not try to explain the concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to jurors.

Over and over, California appellate opinions through the years reiterate that the term "best defines itself'"; that "all attempts at definition are likely to prove confusing and dangerous"; and that "every attempt to explain [the definition of reasonable doubt] renders an explanation of the explanation necessary.” In short, as summed up by the court in People v. Johnson, 119 Cal. App.4th 976, 986 (2004), "[w]e trust that any trial judge who reads that history will heed the two English bards: . . . 'Let it be.' (Lennon & McCartney, Northern Songs 1970, 'Let It Be.')” 

But the trial court in Moore did not let it be. The judge tried to explain reasonable doubt through a series of examples, including:

  • whether one can know that an unfurled flag is, in fact, an American flag;
  • whether one can tell what a jigsaw puzzle will show despite some missing pieces; and
  • whether one can know whether the weather will be more than 50 degrees in San Bernardino in August.

As suggested by past cases, the court's explanations and examples promptly led to additional efforts by defense counsel to re-analyze those examples and then offer his own. Defense counsel's closing argument included a new series of examples and explanations concerning reasonable doubt such as:

  • the reasonable doubts he entertained about the future success of his impending marriage;
  • his decision to become a parent, about which he had reasonable doubts as to his future success before making the decision; and
  • a hypothetical about the decision to turn off the life support for a loved one who was in a persistent vegetative state.

Ultimately, the defendant was convicted and appealed, arguing that the "trial court's remarks during voir dire trivialized the reasonable doubt standard, diluted the concept of reasonable doubt and lowered the People's burden of proof, constituting structural error." The appellate court rejected this argument, stating that it had actually been defense counsel

who introduced the idea of reasonable doubt in the types of decisions that were held to be improper in Nguyen and Brannon, although it would take more time and mental gymnastics than this jury possibly possessed to derive any inference relevant to reasonable doubt from what he said. The only inference this court could derive from counsel's remarks is that counsel made two important decisions in his life, although he had reasonable doubts about their wisdom, and they happened to work out for him. We have no idea what this means in terms of the burden of proof. The implication, in terms of reasonable doubt, of his example of cutting off someone's life support also escapes us, despite many attempts to formulate one. Again, we doubt that the jury put as much time and effort into it as we have.

Posted by Bruce Carton on March 21, 2011 at 05:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)


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