Category Archives: criminal law principles

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 2: Reason Harder

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post attempting to make sense out of the incomprehensible landscape of reasonable doubt and the different ways in which judges define – or refuse to – those terms to jurors. I wanted to make a new instruction that would be easy to follow and correct and accurate. Based on conversations in the comments and in emails I received, I decided to come up with a second new instruction. Both are reproduced below and I want to hear from you guys. Is one better than the other? Can either be further tweaked?

The Hans Gruber instruction:

The State has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt1. Beyond a reasonable doubt is how convincing the evidence has to be to you in order to find an accused guilty of a crime. So what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

What it means is this: The evidence must fully and firmly convince2 you of the defendant’s guilt before you may return a verdict of guilty.The evidence must cause your state of mind to be such that you can confidently say that you are certain of the defendant’s guilt. Although the State does not have to prove the defendant’s guilt to an absolute or mathematical certainty, the State must prove his guilt to a state of near certitude3 in your own minds. In other words, while the law does not require the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is possibly or probably guilty4.

After considering all of the evidence, you may be fully and firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. On the other hand, based on the evidence or lack of evidence, you may think there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty. This realistic possibility must be based on the evidence or lack of evidence and not arising from mere possibility, bare imagination, or fanciful conjecture5.

Thus, if you are fully and firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, you must return a verdict of guilty. If you find that there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty, the law demands that you return a verdict of not guilty.

The Colonel Stuart6 instruction:

Remember that every person is presumed not guilty when arrested. This presumption and status of being not guilty can only be overturned if the evidence presented creates a high degree of certainty by firmly convincing you that the correct person has been arrested [has committed?] for the correct crime. The high degree of certainty is not mathematical absolute certainty but it is also not a possibility, or a probability, or a likelihood that the accused is guilty. What prevents a juror from being firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty is what we call a reasonable doubt. If you have a realistic doubt, you cannot overturn the presumption that the accused is not guilty and you must vote accordingly.A realistic doubt can form based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented by the prosecution but was not.

Thus, only if you are firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty that the accused did, in fact, commit the charged crimes, can you overturn the status of being not guilty. If you do not reach that level of certainty, you must keep that status of not guilty in place and render a verdict accordingly.

Let ‘er rip, and just because:


Who is a reasonable man?

The law is so very concerned with reason and reasonableness. The Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply if a search is “reasonable”. Actions of parties suing others are judged by what a “reasonable person” would do. Prosecutions have to be proven beyond a “reasonable” doubt.

If you read my post on the latter, you will no doubt have learned that “reasonable”, in the law, is an undefinable term. When you tell a person that “reasonable doubt” means “doubt for which you can assign a reason”, you are telling them the same thing, just backwards and it does nothing to further illuminate this elusive meaning.

The application of reasonableness in Fourth Amendment law is gaining traction in recent years and this demands that we ask the question: who on the Supreme Court is reasonable? Cristian Farias, writing at Slate, points out that when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States has never, ever, ever in his life been so much as pulled over by a cop for the measliest of traffic violations, how will he be qualified to decide if a police officer unreasonably lengthened an encounter in order to expand an illegal search?

The apparent confusion in the courtroom was useful in one respect: It illuminated the cluelessness of Chief Justice John Roberts when it comes to traffic stops. Addressing the lawyer who was representing Dennys Rodriguez, the petitioner in the case, Roberts said, “Usually, people have told me, when you’re stopped, the officer says, ‘License and registration.’ ”

This lack of experience with something so frequent and routine as a traffic stop has already affected the way he has ruled in other car search cases:

Though ignorance of the law is no excuse for an average citizen under any circumstance, the Supreme Court decided [PDF] that it is a valid excuse for an officer who suspects you may be committing some offense, even if the offense is not on the books.

“To be reasonable is not to be perfect,” Roberts wrote, “and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”

Roberts’ phraseology about “fair leeway” is lofty, but it turned the meaning of the Fourth Amendment on its head, confounding its role as community protection by the government rather than from the government. And “reasonableness,” at least in the context of policing, has taken on a life of its own at the Supreme Court—leading one scholar to note that its invocation is merely a cover for the court’s “own values regarding the need for the particular police practice at issue.”

Scott Greenfield, following up on a conversation Cristian had with Orin Kerr, fabled lawprof and Fourth Amendment scholar, answers the question: what experience, then, is necessary? In order to decide a ruling in a murder case, judges need not be murderers.

What experience does Chief Justice Roberts bring to our table? From government lawyer to judge, it’s not the experience that the rest of us have, yet this informs his sense of reasonableness. If we were all Supreme Court justices, maybe this would suffice, but we’re not.

There may be no perfect experience for a justice to possess to decide every case before him, but it’s fair to say his experience ought to be better than the experience of watching reruns of CHiPs or Adam 12.  It’s hardly unreasonable to expect some real-world experience from the folks who will decide that our lives are expendable. After all, it’s our time, our lives, at stake here, and the person who will tell us what’s reasonable ought to have a clue how it affects us.

The greatest complaint among defense lawyers when it comes to the appointment of judges has been that politicians routinely nominate those who’ve never worked a day in the real world, instead picking among life-long law professors or government policy lawyers. Those who operate in a world entirely unlike the one whose interactions they will have to adjudicate. The universe from which judges are selected is one where there is little diversity of background and life experience and that background comprises only a small percentage of that of the American population as a whole.

Meanwhile, judges are quite quick to assume certain truths about the difficulties of policing in America and the dangers faced by officers. Their opinions seem to place great weight on ensuring that officer safety is protected and that their decisions enhance the crime solving function instead of hindering it. In other words, they come from a rather strong law-and-order perspective. Their assumptions seem to be that police are almost always in the right and that any interaction that a lay person has with law enforcement is the subject’s fault and tinged with some indicia of guilt.

I’ve written before why it’s easy for people in their position to feel that way and how powerful and addictive a drug living in a cocoon of moral superiority and ignorance is.

If I were to come to your house and tell you what a reasonable temperature is for cooking a steak, would you listen to me, knowing full well that I’ve never eaten, much less cooked steak in my life?

Why should we, then, trust Justice Roberts to tell us whether it is reasonable for a police officer to detain me for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes on the side of the road, while that number just happens to correspond to however long it takes a drug sniffing dog to arrive to ferret out the drugs in my car?

To me, that sounds completely unreasonable.

Tsarnaev: a hearing in futility and the neverending charade

kangaroo-court-1

Just when you thought that the window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles that the Tsarnaev case couldn’t get any window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles-ier, the First Circuit ups and practically shoves an opinion in our faces that screams “CHARADE! CAN YOU SEE IT? THIS IS A SCAM!”

You might remember from my earlier posts that after being denied a change of venue three times, Tsarnaev filed a second Writ of Mandamus in the 1st Circuit, asking them to stay jury selection and move the trial to another jurisdiction. The 1st Circuit finally ruled [PDF]. The headlines will be: “First Circuit grants argument in venue change!”

The reality is that they’ve already told you how they’re going to rule.

In addition to the Second Petition, three motions are pending before this court. First, petitioner seeks a stay of jury selection in the district court, which the government has opposed. Petitioner’s motion to stay is denied as without merit by two judges of this court.

The First Circuit will listen to arguments on whether the jury selection and the whole trial should be moved to another jurisdiction one week from today but they won’t stop jury selection until then. We don’t know how many jurors will be questioned between now and then and if enough will be accepted to seat a whole jury.

Do you really think that next week, the First Circuit is suddenly going to say that, yes, of course, the trial should be moved? Absolutely no chance at all of that happening1.

So why are they granting a hearing in the first place? It seems because they have to:

Our concurring and dissenting colleague has requested oral argument and argument may be granted at the request of a single judge. Accordingly, we will hear argument on the Second Petition on February 19, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.

The panel that issued this order consists of three judges. Out of the three, only one would have granted the stay of jury selection and only one wants to hear oral argument on whether the case should be moved. The lone dissenting judge is Juan Torruella, all of 81 years and a Reagan appointee. He makes the rather obvious point that if a hearing is to be conducted next week on whether the case should be moved elsewhere, then wouldn’t it make sense to halt jury selection until then?

So how do you think the other two will vote come next Thursday? I don’t think Judge O’Toole is worried.

Then there’s also the charade of dancing around the very heart of the matter that’s at the core of this motion for change of venue. Both parties are not allowed to reference items that are sealed below. This means that they cannot reference, in open court, the responses of jurors to questions or to the questionnaire that call into question the ability of Tsarnaev to have a fair trial in Boston.

Judge Torruella again:

Second, while I agree with the order as to the time, place, and length of the hearing, as well as the briefing schedule, I disagree with the restrictions placed upon it by virtue of the sealing order. It will be quite an interesting hearing since the parties will be forbidden from discussing the details of facts directly at the heart of the issue presented: whether the answers given during the jury selection process have demonstrated that the jury pool is so tainted and prejudiced that it is impossible for the Defendant to receive a fair trial.

At 81, he’s no fool. He sees this for what it is: a pro-forma hearing with a foregone conclusion. The First Circuit seems to have made up its mind: this trial will happen in Boston, regardless of how fair the jurors are and at the exclusion of the press and the public if need be.

This is justice in America. Some have called it a Kangaroo Court. I call it Thursday.


Provoking prosecutorial oversight

Slate has published an interview with Fordham Law professor John Pfaff (Twitter) that is both very good and very bad. I suspect they contacted him because of his post at PrawfsBlawg (guys, it’s been, like, 10 years. Can we change that name now? Seriously please?) in which he thinks about prosecutors.

Thinking about prosecutors is a very good thing – we here at APD do it often – and it seems that John Pfaff recognizes that thinking about prosecutors is an important thing and he seems to do it often and do it well:

The second question concerns a recent change in prosecutorial behavior that has had a profound impact on punishment in the United States over the past twenty years (and one I have raised in earlier posts as well). Since the early 1990s, prison populations have continued to soar even as crime rates steadily dropped. Why? Well, before asking “why,” we need to ask “who”—whose actions are most responsible for the change.

The basic facts are straightforward: since the 1990s, crime has fallen, and so too have arrests. The likelihood that a felony case results in a prison admission has been flat. The time that admitted person spends in prison has been flat too (I swear—though contrary to conventional wisdom, this is in fact the case). Only one thing has increased: the probability that an arrest results in a felony charge.

The change has been dramatic: over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the probably that an arrest resulted in a felony case soared, from about 1-in-3 to 2-in-3, and this appears to be the primary engine of prison growth during the crime decline. Thus the story of post-crime decline prison growth is a story of increased prosecutorial aggressiveness.

In fact Pfaff has been at this for a while. Here’s a paper he wrote in 2009 and here’s an accompanying piece in, of all things, Slate in 2009. Here’s another one from 2014. His point is that while a lot of us have been focused on the war on drugs as the main driving force behind America’s incarceration problem, it is but one factor. He urges us to look at prosecutors more skeptically and question their unchecked power and their exercise of their discretion in determining who to charge and with what crimes.

This is, of course, not a novel idea: it stands to reason that if prosecutors are overzealous and heavy-handed and throw around their power, they will charge greater numbers of people with more serious crimes and use the threat of incarceration to get potentially innocent people to plead to lesser offenses and thus boost prison populations, despite actual crime dropping.

Whether there is a direct correlation here is beyond my mathematical abilities, but intellectually one cannot escape coming to the conclusion that this theory holds water. Anecdotal, experiential evidence supports this theory. Every criminal defense lawyer has encountered a prosecutor or three who insists that – despite damning evidence to the contrary – a dismissal shall not be forthcoming and a defendant must agree to accept some responsibility whether real or imaginary. Every criminal defense lawyer has encountered a prosecutor who refuses to forgo a prosecution despite it being the morally correct path to take. Statutory rape cases are the prime example of opportunity for abuse. Additionally, in CT alone – a very small state – there are 1532 offenses one could commit that would land one in jail.

“A pound of flesh” isn’t a phrase thrown about in criminal justice circles because the participants are avid meat eaters.

The Slate interview with Pfaff is a good thing, however, because it highlights the problem with a lack of oversight of prosecutors to the lay individual1.

So what caused prosecutors to become more aggressive? Sadly, no one knows. I thus want to start talking through some of the possibilities, such as other political incentives, changing budgets, improved policing, tougher sentencing laws (which do not necessarily result in longer sentences, but may facilitate plea bargains), etc. Any real reform of criminal justice outcomes in the US will require some change in prosecutorial behavior.

But that’s a tricky thing to accomplish. Not only do we not really understand what motivates or shapes prosecutorial outcomes, but DAs are very hard to regulate: directly elected at local levels, generally unchallenged and politically popular. Any effort to modify prosecutorial behavior will thus likely have to operate indirectly and by persuasion, which of course requires us to know what is persuasive.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no oversight of prosecutors anywhere. Grievances are rarely filed, if ever. There are no boards who review the performance of prosecutors and internal investigations are pro-forma if they are ever performed.2 Even those who are found by courts to have engaged in unethical behavior are rarely punished and not only continue to keep their jobs, but also get promoted and become judges.

The greater the awareness of this issue and the greater public interest we can generate, the better it is for everyone.

But let’s not call prosecutorial oversight “provocative” shall we? What’s so provocative about suggesting that prosecutors are sending more people to jail and thus our prison populations are increasing across the country?3

This is why this piece is very bad. It sets up Pfaff’s theory as some sort of ground-breaking, dangerous, novel idea. It reveals another pet subject of ours here at APD and that is the complete and abject genuflection that the media engages in at the altar of law enforcement.

Most media representations of the justice system are from an solidly “law and order” position: all crime is bad, all criminals are bad, whatever police say is true and every person deserves the punishment they get.

When that is the underlying theme of every story written about the justice system, it isn’t hard to see why an idea that questions the righteousness of those on the “law and order” side of the justice equation would be treated as “provocative”.

I have never understood why the media isn’t more skeptical. They are clearly so when it comes to other forms of governmental power and abuse: the military, state secrets, who’s making how much and which contract was given to which relative. So why do the police and prosecutors get a “can-do-no-wrong” pass? Why are press releases from the police blotter routinely printed verbatim? Why isn’t it equally normal to wonder if the accused in a particular case was given a just sentence or whether the prosecutor really needed to purse a more serious charge when a lesser one would have sufficed?

If judges, defense lawyers, grievance committees, legislators and the media won’t challenge the authority of prosecutors and demand oversight, then who’s left? That’s right: prosecutors.

It depends on what you mean by a fair trial (updated)

Both the Federal Constitution and the state constitution provide every person with several rights when it comes to the kind of trial that he or she deserves: there is a right to a public trial1, a right to a fair trial2 and a right to a trial by an impartial jury3.

Concurrently, the public and the press have a First Amendment right of access to courts and to trials4. These rights combine to form a “presumption of openness”5 and access to courts and judicial documents.

The core value of this right to a public trial is:

Public monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system by ensuring that justice is administered equitably and in accordance with established procedures.

“[T]he bright light cast upon the judicial process by public observation diminishes the possibilities for injustice, incompetence, perjury and fraud. Furthermore, the very openness of the process should provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system and a better perception of its fairness.”

Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.

An impartial jury is one which comes into a trial without any preconceived notions and can put aside whatever biases they may have formed and decide the case based on the evidence presented to it. Just because jurors have been exposed to news coverage doesn’t mean that the defendant is deprived of due process6. Jurors are not required to be “totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved” and prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance7.

Sometimes, however, these core rights are at loggerheads. This is when the public’s right of access and the media’s right to report on court proceedings creates an atmosphere of publicity in which it is impossible to find and seat impartial jurors. This happens in high profile cases where there is such extensive media coverage with inflammatory information and facts that create irreversible biases among potential jurors. In a case like that, the defendant need not prove that each potential juror is actually biased against him, but whether the pretrial publicity constitutes an “extreme circumstance where there has been inherently prejudicial publicity such as to make the possibility of prejudice highly likely or almost unavoidable.”8 Since this would be done pretrial, most defendants would seek to have the trial moved to another location where there isn’t such publicity, or wait a long time for the prejudice to abate.

This Constitutional lesson is currently being enacted for the American public in Boston, where Dzokhar Tsarnaev is being tried in a capital case for the Boston Marathon bombings.

That there is immense pretrial publicity in this case is undeniable. The Boston bombing was the top MA story of 2014. This has already prompted Tsarnaev’s lawyers to file three motions for change of venue. [UpdateThe first two were rejected All three have now been rejected [PDF] as was a subsequent Writ of Mandamus filed in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals [pdf] which that court denied [PDF].9 This is because courts like to think that jury selection can weed out the partial jurors and uncover those hidden gems who can profess to be impartial. In fact, it’s one of the minimization mechanisms required as an alternative to a change of venue.10

It is with that in mind that it seems the district judge and the court of appeals denied Tsarnaev’s first attempts at changing venue.

Then came jury selection, which has been an unmitigated disaster. According to his third Motion for Change of Venue [PDF] and his Second Writ of Mandamus [PDF], juror questionnaires and jury selection have uncovered irreparable biases:

[A]n extraordinary 85 percent of the prospective jurors either believe Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, or have some self-identified “connection” to the case, or both.

Fully 68 percent of prospective jurors already believe that Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, before hearing a single witness or examining a shred of evidence at trial.

Even more striking, 69 percent of prospective jurors have a self identified connection or expressed allegiance to the people, places, and/or events at issue in the case. Stronger support for a finding of presumed prejudice in Boston is difficult to imagine, and the existing record precludes a fair trial in Boston.

The news media has done an equally impressive job of documenting the utter futility of seeking impartial jurors and the investigations of potential jurors’ social media accounts have uncovered biases that may have otherwise remained hidden. In fact, a new poll published today in the Boston Globe reveals that almost 90% of people think he is guilty or probably guilty.

guilty3

11 days of selection have passed, 142 jurors have been questioned and we still don’t know how many, if any, have been selected11.

The First Circuit ordered the Government to respond to Tsarnaev’s Writ today. Whether it rules today and in what direction remains to be seen, but all of this does raise the question:

What do we really mean by a fair trial? Given the juror responses and the polls conducted, it seems obvious that everyone thinks Tsarnaev is guilty. Then why are we persisting with this charade in Boston? Our rules of law require that a decision be made only on the basis of the evidence presented in court. Yet if this trial is permitted to remain in Boston it will become clear that what we mean by “Fair Trial” is merely an “appearance of a fair trial” without regard to reality. Fair trial would mean “a fair trial to the extent that we can provide one under the circumstances”. The right decision here would be to move the trial but can we get past the legalese and make that difficult decision?12 Or is it going to be “good enough” for us to say that “well, we know he’s really, really guilty, so seriously, c’mon guys, the Constitution doesn’t count here”?

The Tsarnaev case has already once delivered a beating to a core Constitutional right. Will there be a second?


What’s in a word? Making ‘reasonable doubt’ understandable (updated)

[Update: See two proposed charges below, both of which are almost identical in content, but completely different in style.]
reasonable-doubt-motivational-poster

“Truth is a matter of semantics, whether we like it or not,” writes Michael Robotham in his novel ‘Suspect’. What he has done in that sentence, perhaps unknowingly, is describe in a nutshell the entire modern American criminal justice system. When it comes to jury trials, the guilt or innocence of a defendant rests in many cases upon the definition of the various elements that make up a crime, and most importantly on the definition of the standard of proof: beyond a reasonable doubt. For it is that standard governments across the country must clear in order to deprive another citizen of life and liberty.

As the Supreme Court said in In Re Winship, the reasonable doubt standard “provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence — that bedrock axiomatic and elementary principle whose enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” In other words, you can only have the presumption of innocence hold value if the State is permitted to overcome it by meeting the most exacting standard possible.

The phrase “reasonable doubt”, however ingrained it is in our lexicon, is difficult to pin down and define. By its very nature it is vague – what is reasonable, for instance and reasonable to whom and in what context; what is a doubt, etc – and thus in of itself provides very little reliable guidance to judges and juries whose job it is to interpret and apply it.

Thus, there are probably more discussions devoted to the definition of reasonable doubt than any other phrase in the criminal law. Unfortunately, after more than a decade grappling with this phrase, I am no more certain of its meaning today than I was when I started practicing criminal law.

Courts have developed several definitions that they claim pass Constitutional muster, but I’m afraid that the problem is more akin to that experienced by Justice Steward in Jacobellis v. Ohio; that reasonable doubt is something you know when you see. This, of course, is utterly useless because it provides no guidance.

So what do our courts provide for? There seem to be three primary schools: those that use Massachusetts’ venerable Webster description with its phrases of “moral certainty” and “abiding conviction” [PDF]. There is the other school, notably headlined by Justice Ginsburg in Victor v. Nebraska and the Federal Judicial Center’s pattern instruction, which favors the use of the phrase “firmly convinced”. Finally there is the school that follows neither, most notably Connecticut’s own model instructions. All three schools are ripe for criticism.

While the “moral certainty” in the Webster definition is centuries old and is loosely translated to “I am as certain as I can be, based on what I have seen and heard”, the masking of that more every day definition behind the charged “moral” is a tremendous disadvantage to the accused. For requiring a conviction only upon a moral certainty seeks to bring morality – and thus subjective opinions of what is right and wrong – into the equation. An equation that most accuseds in this day and age are sure to lose. It also does nothing to clearly define the phrase ‘reasonable doubt’.

Connecticut’s instruction, which can be found on the Judicial Branch website, focuses almost entirely on what a doubt is – it is a serious doubt that you would heed, an honest doubt, a real doubt – and does little to define the certainty level required. The first sentence of the instruction – “[t]he meaning of reasonable doubt can be arrived at by emphasizing the word reasonable” – is itself a head scratcher, liable to sidetrack even the most sophisticated listener.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg’s favored requirement of being “firmly convinced” comes closest to In re Winship’s mandate that no person should be adjudged guilty with a fact finder being convinced of guilt “with the utmost certainty”. Our supreme court, in State v. Jeffrey Jackson, implicitly approved this formulation but did not require it of our trial judges and it is not routinely given in our courts.

In order to formulate a clear, succinct and accurate definition of “reasonable doubt”, I think it would help to first understand what exactly we wish to convey to jurors. To me, the essential points seem to be the following:

  1. That every person is presumed innocent when arrested;
  2. That they can be found guilty and have their liberty deprived only if the evidence presented by the prosecution creates a high degree of certainty that the correct person has been arrested for the correct crime;
  3. That the high degree is not mathematical absolute certainty;
  4. That the high degree is greater than a possibility or a probability that the accused is guilty;
  5. That any realistic doubt must lead to an acquittal;
  6. That this decision must be made based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented but was not.

If that is what we want to convey, then why do we not simply say that? Why must we muck about with terms like “moral certainty” and “abiding conviction” and “a serious doubt that reasonable men would heed”. Why are so averse to speaking in plain English?

With all of the above in mind, I propose the following, which is a variation of the “firmly convinced” formulation:

The State has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt1. Beyond a reasonable doubt is how convincing the evidence has to be to you in order to find an accused guilty of a crime. So what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

What it means is this: You must be fully and firmly convinced2 of the defendant’s guilt before you may return a verdict of guilty. Your state of mind must be such that you can confidently say that you are certain of the defendant’s guilt. Although the State does not have to prove the defendant’s guilt to an absolute or mathematical certainty, the State must prove his guilt to a state of near certitude3 in your own minds. In other words, while the law does not require the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is possibly or probably guilty4.

After considering all of the evidence, you may be fully and firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. On the other hand, based on the evidence or lack of evidence, you may think there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty. This realistic possibility must be based on the evidence or lack of evidence and not arising from mere possibility, bare imagination, or fanciful conjecture5.

Thus, if you are fully and firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, you must return a verdict of guilty. If you find that there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty, the law demands that you return a verdict of not guilty.

I am certain that my formulation will have its critics. I invite them to send me their concerns and suggestions, so that we may open a dialogue that seeks to fix the incomprehensible legalese we throw at jurors today and ask them to make the most solemn decision they might ever have to in their lives.

Update: Based on conversations in the comments below and taking into account feedback I’ve received via email, I’ve formulated this second alternative instruction:

Remember that every person is presumed not guilty when arrested. This presumption and status of being not guilty can only be overturned if the evidence presented creates a high degree of certainty by firmly convincing you that the correct person has been arrested [has committed?] for the correct crime. The high degree of certainty is not mathematical absolute certainty but it is also not a possibility, or a probability, or a likelihood that the accused is guilty. What prevents a juror from being firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty is what we call a reasonable doubt. If you have a realistic doubt, you cannot overturn the presumption that the accused is not guilty and you must vote accordingly. A realistic doubt can form based on the evidence presented in court or evidence that could have or should have been presented by the prosecution but was not.

Thus, only if you are firmly convinced to a high degree of certainty that the accused did, in fact, commit the charged crimes, can you overturn the status of being not guilty. If you do not reach that level of certainty, you must keep that status of not guilty in place and render a verdict accordingly.

Thoughts you have are, as always, welcome.


Reminder to cops and prosecutors: it’s not my job to help you

I swear, sometimes, I think everybody needs to go back to grade school for remedial lessons in English and Civics.

I’ve said it again and again, our system of laws is an adversarial system, as opposed to a “truth-seeking” or inquisitorial system. This means there are two sides in opposition: those that try to put people in jail and those who try to ensure that only those who are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt are put in jail. The system can build trust and work relatively properly only when the two sides fulfill their stated roles and don’t exercise improper influence over the other1.

So that means, for instance, that a public defender shouldn’t be arrested and charged with hindering prosecution because his client failed to return to court at the start of a trial.

An Allegheny County public defender was arrested Monday on charges that he gave inaccurate information to a judge’s staff about whether his client had appeared for trial in a sex assault case.  [He] was arraigned Monday night on charges of hindering apprehension and obstructing the administration of law. Court records show Mr. Capone, who could not immediately be reached, was released on nonmonetary bond.

He was arrested for giving “inaccurate information”? What in Blackbeard’s black beard is that?

Mr. Capone represented Jeffrey Derosky, 44, of Imperial, who was charged by Allegheny County police with sexually assaulting a child and other crimes. Mr. Derosky was scheduled to go to trial Jan. 12. Four days later, he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in West Virginia.

Sorry, I forgot it mention it gets pretty serious. But here’s the crux of it:

A detective with the county sheriff’s office wrote in a criminal complaint that Mr. Capone told a staff member for Judge Donna Jo McDaniel that Mr. Derosky “had not appeared at court.” The judge’s tipstaff told investigators Mr. Capone asked several times that day whether his client had checked in and stated that “the last time he saw his client was when they met on the Friday before the trial,” the detective wrote.

Unfortunately, it turns out that he had seen Derosky on the morning of the trial and had conveyed an offer of 5 to 10 years to serve. Derosky and his girlfriend had left, both intending to not return. It doesn’t seem that Capone was aware of their intentions to flee.

But it’s still not clear what exactly happened:

The detective contacted the judge’s staff again and asked them to clarify whether Mr. Derosky had come to the courthouse for trial. Confronted with the information from Ms. Blystone, Mr. Capone said he “was unsure how to answer that question and believe that it would violate attorney/client privilege,” the detective wrote.

He said Mr. Capone told the judge’s staff that Mr. Derosky and Ms. Blystone had come to court for the trial, he informed them of the plea deal and Mr. Derosky then cursed and said, “I’m out of here.” Mr. Capone told the staff he went to another courtroom and when he returned about 10 minutes later, Mr. Derosky was gone, according to the complaint.

So it seems that Capone rightly told the cop to fuck off and then did tell the staff that the defendant had come to court.

He was charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution. In Pennsylvania, that crime is defined as:

§ 5105.  Hindering apprehension or prosecution.

(a)  Offense defined.–A person commits an offense if, with intent to hinder the apprehension, prosecution, conviction or punishment of another for crime or violation of the terms of probation, parole, intermediate punishment or Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, he:

(1)  harbors or conceals the other;

(2)  provides or aids in providing a weapon, transportation, disguise or other means of avoiding apprehension or effecting escape;

(3)  conceals or destroys evidence of the crime, or tampers with a witness, informant, document or other source of information, regardless of its admissibility in evidence;

(4)  warns the other of impending discovery or apprehension, except that this paragraph does not apply to a warning given in connection with an effort to bring another into compliance with law; or

(5)  provides false information to a law enforcement officer.

I’ve put a strikethrough through those parts that aren’t implicated leaving only those that possibly might be. Those remaining parts, however, are a stretch. First, can it be said that he provided or aided a means of avoiding apprehension or escape? He just told the client the offer, the client said that he’d be back and then he pretended to not have seen the client that day.

Let me tell you. This happens all the time. Clients are late. They show up and then they disappear and you have no idea where they are. Some of them run off when you tell them you’re going to jail. It happens every single day every where in America, multiple times.

My job as a lawyer is to make sure my client doesn’t screwed and even doubly so when he’s doing the screwing to himself. So if I can avoid eye-contact with the judge or go disappear in my office for a few hours and pretend to have forgotten that they’re waiting for my client, you can damn well be sure I’ll do that, because clients that run and stay gone are rare. Most often they’re outside smoking a cigarette, calling their relatives arranging for bail or off for one last decent meal. If making myself sparse for an hour or so while they get their shit together avoids the hassle of a re-arrest warrant and then the subsequent vacating of that warrant, then I’m all for it. Call it judicial efficiency.

(4) is pretty damn stupid to be applied in this context. We warn our clients of their apprehension every day. “Hey, Jimmy Jones, you’re going to jail today.”

Finally, “tipstaff”, whatever that is, don’t qualify as Law Enforcement.

What was the problem here? Clearly, he shouldn’t have pretended to not have seen the defendant when he, in fact, did. But how much different is that than him saying “I don’t know where he is”? What if he had said “I can’t divulge any information without violating attorney-client privilege”? Would that be hindering apprehension? Or are those with guns and gavels simply mad that he dared “lie” to them?

This scenario has been discussed many times in my office and no doubt in other public defender offices across the country. I can tell you that there is a difference of opinion and sharp one at that. There are those who believe that it is not within their job description to do one thing to help cops or prosecutors in arresting and prosecuting their clients. There are others who believe that to omit information such as is the case here is to play with one’s word and trust and potentially expose one to professional sanctions.

Not a single person believes that it rises to – nor should it – a criminal act. That’s nothing more than flexing of the thug muscles by law enforcement and should be denounced from every quarter.

Frankly, I’m more concerned about a system that makes an offer of 5-10 years of jail on the day of trial and then causes a man to take his own life rather than be arrested and incarcerated. Isn’t that the real problem here, worthy of scrutiny?

To make it incumbent upon criminal defense lawyers – at the risk of arrest, incarceration and loss of license no less – to divulge the whereabouts of every client and assist in their apprehension is to make attorneys complicit in the machinery of the prosecution and to fundamentally erode the bedrock foundational principles we pretend to be so proud of.