Reasonable Doubt vs Reasonable Belief
Walk with me into a courtroom on the first day of trial. Except for the clerk, we will be the first to arrive at counsel table. The prosecuting attorney will arrive shortly before the judge with her legal assistant. The judge will enter and call your case. To be sure, we will be prepared. I will have told you what to expect – how the day (or days) will proceed. But nothing can prepare you for what comes next. The back of the court will fill with 25 to 40 people whom you do not know, and you will realize that your fate will be decided by twelve of these people. Engineers and homemakers. Pastors and teachers. Police officers and scientists. If you are like so many I’ve represented you will think, “I hope they know what ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’ means.”
What if your journey into the courtroom is not as a defendant, but as a juror? Would you ask, “Do I know what ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’ means”? I fear too many of us don’t ask that basic question.
I have represented people accused of horrible acts of sexual abuse based on the accusation of one individual several years after the event is alleged to have occurred. Of course, we all want those who would cause such harm to be held accountable – to pay. But does this evidence alone rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Prosecutors think it does and have sought and obtained convictions on nothing more.
Now, return with me to the courtroom and look out over the faces of those who will decide whether to take 25 years of your life based on this one accusation. Knowing you have not done anything wrong? How do you feel? Why?
The Center for Prosecutor Integrity recently described “Wrongful convictions of sexual assault [as] a widespread problem,” citing statistics that indicate sexual assault is the second most common crime, next to homicide, associated with wrongful convictions. The same organization reports that, for child sex abuse cases, perjury or false accusations account for 84% of wrongful convictions.
Trial is over. Evidence has closed. Arguments were made. The jury has filed out of the court, loath to look in your direction and acknowledge the weight burdening you. They will decide whether you will be labeled a sex offender; whether you will be ostracized; whether you will forfeit 25 years of your life. They will deliberate and will decide whether the accusation of a young child is enough.
In many cases the answer the jury comes back with is that it is enough that they believe the child. Prosecutors will actually argue as much in their summations. However, the question is not whether it is reasonable to believe the child, but whether it is reasonable to doubt the child. If the discussion in the jury room is about all of the reasons to believe the child, the jury has not done its job and conviction becomes a near certainty – regardless of the veracity of the accusation.
Children get special attention in our society, as well they should. At a young age, we must instruct children on the difference between the truth and imagination. As they grow, we encourage children to think for themselves and to not parrot the views of others. We ensure our kids can differentiate between right and wrong. We do these things because children need instruction in these areas. However, it is these same children – individuals still growing and learning how to navigate their lives – who we allow to convince us without critically questioning whether reasons to doubt their claims exist and are reasonable.
To be clear, many children are victims of horrible atrocities. We should protect our children. However, protection of our children and safeguarding those who are falsely accused, are not mutually exclusive endeavors.
The jury has returned. The judge asks if they have reached a verdict. We watch as the jury foreperson rises and hands the verdict to the clerk, who then hands it to the judge. The judge reads the form silently, not giving any clue as to its contents. You and I rise to hear your fate. You swallow hard and the judge reads, “We the jury, being duly empaneled to try the matter before us do hereby find the defendant …”