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Criminal Nuggets

Oct 16, 2014

What is reasonable doubt? In Podcast Episode 020 of the Criminal Nuggets Podcast, Evan Bruno lays out great insight gained from serving as a jury foreman. Reasonable doubt is finally demystified. Evan is an attorney who blogs about the law at and is a regular contributor to the Chicago Daily Law Bullitin.

He Was in The Jury Room

Evan had the chance to see, first hand, how juries wrestle with the legal standard of finding a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was right there in the deliberation room when they began to ask out loud: What is reasonable doubt?

You see, juries and lawyers are treating this term like a highly special term of art. In the deliberation that Bruno participated in, a jury member actually asked -

How much is a reasonable doubt?

From the start, it appears the jury was thinking of this in terms of a "level" or "percentage".

You have to listen to Podcast Episode 020 (black bar up there) to see how Evan answered the question.

From the Podcast

Feel Free to retweet these great Criminal Nuggets mined by Evan -

-- “Last thing a court should ever do is throw more adjectives at the jury.”

-- “... it’s just reassuring the jury that they are over thinking the question.”

-- “If you get a know the jury has some doubt.”

This is great insight into how a jury may actually be thinking of reasonable doubt.

So, What  is Reasonable Doubt

I have expressed a certain level of frustration. The appellate courts love telling us that we gave a “wrong” definition of reasonable doubt to a jury. Yet, the courts are slow in helping us formulate an exact response to that eventual jury question.

After listening to this podcast, you’ll have a much better perspective on the task at hand. And you’ll come to realize there is nothing magical or mysterious happening here.

The faster you, as an attorney, come to that realization the easier it is going to be for you to guide your jury into a similar understanding. We know juries, inevitably, are going to ask for a definition of reasonable doubt. We know that we must be very careful with the precise manner in which we answer their question. Reversal in these situations is always a distinct possibility.

I took the liberty to transcribe one way, discussed by Evan, to answer that question. I also included the "pregnant" answers that have been allowed in federal juries. You can download this reasonable doubt definition cheat sheet by clicking HERE.

We'll See This Issue Again

The Illinois Supreme Court is going to address this issue of correct and incorrect ways to define reasonable doubt for a jury.

The most recent appellate decision comes to us in People v. Thomas.  I have also discussed the topic in Podcast Episode 010 of the Criminal Nuggets Podcast.

We are now ready for whatever decision the court throws down at us.

No One Size Fits All

In our chat, Evan quickly pointed out there is no “one size fits all” response to a jury question on reasonable doubt. The exact answer always depends on exactly what the jury is asking, how they are asking it, and all the other circumstances that illuminate their thinking.

However, it is always a good idea to be armed with some arrows in your arsenal. Your judgment, and the circumstances will dictate which arrows or definitions you actually use in a particular trial.

Download This Reasonable Doubt Definition Cheat Sheet

Be ready, the next time your jury asks the question:

What is reasonable doubt?

I took the liberty to create PDF file available for you to download. This PDF contains a working definition that Evan thinks could work best the next time a jury asks for a definition of reasonable doubt. Other options and alternatives are included. Remember, your exact response to a jury question will differ for every jury and every question.

By providing your email address you can download this reasonable doubt definition cheat sheet I created especially for you. Just click the image below -