What do they mean by reasonable doubt?

When someone is “guilty beyond reasonable doubt”, they are, in other words, guilty…

This jibes with the definition in my jurisdiction (Washington State), which is “doubt as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully, fairly, and carefully considering all of the evidence or lack of evidence.” In re Personal Restraint of Benn, 952 P.2d 116, 143 (1998) (citation omitted).

So there ya go.

Aha! Crystal clear!


When someone is deciding if you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt, what exactly are they doubting? Your guilt? Because if you doubt someone’s guilt, and you doubt it beyond a “reasonable” level, then you would have to assume that they are innocent, not guilty. So, huh?

I don’t think it’s supposed to be “crystal” clear, RS, because one wants to leave some discretion to the jury.

But generally, reasonable doubt is doubt for which there is a reason. You might reasonably doubt that the eyewitness got things right, for example. But (just to pick something way out there) to say that one won’t convict because maybe space aliens beamed in, did the crime, implanted false memories in the witnesses and beamed back out would be an example of an unreasonable doubt.

Unless, of course, evidence was introduced that that did, in fact, occur.

I’ve always thought of it as “not-unreasonable” doubt. That is to say, barring totally absurd notions (“Aliens planted my DNA on the victim”) is the evidence convincing. There’s almost always a possibility of the defendent being innocent… but can you reasonably say that he didn’t do it, given the evidence presented. Or, more appropriately, does the evidence presented reasonably convince you of his guilt (innocent until proven guilty and all…).

I don’t know if that’s any clearer, but it’s more or less how I think of it.

I think it’s more than that. Reasonable doubt also excludes doubt of the “I just have a feeling that he didn’t do it” variety.

I’d say Aodoi & manhattan have got it right.

Well, that’s the same thing. “I just have a feeling” is not reasonable because it isn’t based on the evidence; that is, it isn’t based on reason. Whether it’s that or aliens, both are positions that someone dispassionately analysing guilt wouldn’t seriously consider.

almost a lawyer

There is no shortage of phrases used to describe reasonable doubt. None of them are crystal clear; the phrase evades a precise meaning, since any two listeners will interpret it slightly differently.

My offering: a guilty veridict means that there are no reasonable hypotheses other than the guilt of the accused to explain the evidence that the fact-finder believes. Suspicion or even a probability of guilt is not enough to warrant a guilty verdict; instead, no reasonable explanation for the facts other than guilt should exist.

  • Rick


With respect, I’m not getting the “huh?” here. You are mostly right – if you doubt the person’s guilt, and your doubt is reasonable, then you have to assume the State failed to prove its case and find the person not guilty.

This is different from assuming the person is innocent, which is why I said you were mostly right. I assume you can see that a person could be actually guilty in reality but still found not guilty if the State failed to prove its case. “Not guility” is not the same as “innocent.” But your premise is correct; if you doubt the defendant’s guilt, and your doubt is reasonable, then the State has not proven his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If it fails to do so, you must acquit him. That is why we say the State must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ah. It just occurs to me that your question may be over confusion about the word “beyond.” “Beyond” in this context doesn’t mean, “that, plus a little more” so that you are convicted only if there is reasonable doubt. “Beyond” in this context means “without,” i.e., you do not reasonably doubt the person’s guilt. It might more clearly be phrased guilt without a reasonable doubt.

is that clearer?

“He is guilty beyond a resonable doubt” is a misleading and redundant statement. The proper way to say this would be “It was proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was guilty.”

IMHO, anyway.

I don’t think it is. The space alien abduction thing is something that is extremely unlikely to be true in the judgement of the juror (I would imagine that a juror who believed that space alien abductions are likely to happen would be justified in considering that reasonable doubt). By contrast, the “I just have a feeling that he didn’t do it” is something that many people put a lot of stock in - they call it “intuition”. This juror may seriously believe that the guy is innocent, but if he is unable to find a reasonable explanation for the evidence of guilt, he would be required to convict. (Though I imagine that in practice such a person would buy into some defence argument or other).

In Scotland a Jury ,as well as giving a Guilty or Not Guilty verdict have a third option. This is “Not Proven”. This means ,I suppose, “we think you did it but there is not enough proof to find you guilty”. The person is allowed to go free but I do not if this verdict is held on any record for future use. Perhaps somebody more versed in Scottish law can tell us.

How can a person’s religious convictions be reconciled with “reasonable doubt”, specifically as pertains to serving on a jury?

Without discussing the relative merits of different religions, there are some religions that preach, and their followers believe, things that non-followers (of that religion) would find preposterous.

I do not espouse this as my religion, but… I, personally, fully believe there are other planets orbiting other stars that have life forms on their surfaces that at least vaguely resemble me (at least in their chemical composition). I also fully believe that some of them are capable of visiting Earth, and have done so. Yes… I am going on record as declaring “I believe in space aliens, and I think they’ve come to Earth.”

Without discussing the relative merits of my beliefs, I can state with absolute confidence that the answer to some questions is “The aliens did it.” (However, I’m not sure which questions.) There are many circumstances that I can confidently state “The aliens might have done it.”

“Yer ‘onner, them dang-um ol’ space aliens done come down and (fill in the blank of whatever I’m being charged with).”

Reasonable doubt? If not, why not?

Not, because your doubt is not reasonable. This is a very squishy area, since by co-opting the idea of “reasonableness” or, more specifically, the fiction of the “reasonable person,” the law attempts to make objective (or at least quasi-objective) that which is at bottom subjective – i.e., was a particular action reasonable? Reasonable to whom? To you? To me? No: to that fictious and non-existent entity, “the reasonable person.”

Like any other type of “reasonableness,” reasonable doubt is evaluated by asking whether the fictious Everyman would find the doubt reasonable. This is totally theoretical, however; if you truly believe you have reasonable doubt, even if every other person in the world disagrees with you on the question of its reasonableness, then that’s good enough (in the context of a criminal trial). There is no way to attack a not-guilty verdict on the basis that the “doubt” about guilt was not in fact “reasonable.”

Before the trial begins, in the process of jury seclection, the attorneys will try to ferret out the total fruitcakes and those who will acquit even if lacking reasonable doubt. But sometimes when the evidence seems overwhelming to an outside observer, the jury will still feel that reasonable doubt exists. :cough: OJ :cough:

I was on a jury not long ago, and the judge explained reasonable doubt like this

Like most of these explanations, it’s up to the jurors to decide what doubts are reasonable or not.
Oh, and I now understand why the O.J. Simpson jury acquitted him. Juries do not hear all of the facts in a case. Not by a long shot.