Reasonable Doubt Part 1: Burden Of Proof & Skepticism

prisonReasonable Doubt is a new series I am going to be writing that explores what reasonable doubt actually means. It’s become an epidemic across many nations with the jury system, that juries simply do not understand what reasonable doubt is. As a skeptic and a human rights activist, this infuriates me more than most issues do.

The problem stems from poor education. People selected for juries not only don’t understand what reasonable doubt means, as is made evident by the frequency of asinine verdicts, but they also fail to see the ripple effect one poor verdict in one case has within the entire judicial system. The more often juries come to a decision totally disregarding reasonable doubt, the further the entire justice system crumbles and is rendered all but useless in the prevention of crime and capture of dangerous people.

The mistake people most often make, is that reasonable doubt somehow equates to innocence. When verdicts come back to court, they are read as “guilty” or “not guilty” and “not guilty” is often confused in the layman’s mind as “innocent”. It does not mean the same thing.

Just like arguments for God, the burden of proof is in the hands of the positive claimant, ie. the prosecution. Reasonable doubt exists when the prosecution has not provided enough evidence to prove guilt.

If, in your mind, there is even a 1% chance the defendant did not commit the crime being examined and this is based on a lack of evidence or gaps in the story, you have reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, most people feel an acquittal for that tiny sliver of doubt is, in essence, determining him to be innocent.

To illustrate this in an actual case, I recommend the documentary The Staircase. You can watch it on YouTube here:

This documentary follows an author who was charged with his wife’s murder. There is more than ample reasonable doubt in this case, no matter how “guilty as fuck” some of the YouTube comments say he looks. Looking “guilty as fuck” does not count as evidence.

This case had only one correct verdict, based on the evidence presented in court, and that is not guilty. That’s not to say I believe he is innocent, but the case was definitely not made for his guilt at all. In fact, the prosecution’s case was a fucking joke.

The fact that the jury still found the defendant guilty, speaks volumes to the layman’s understanding of reasonable doubt.

Take into consideration the Innocence Project’s work. They exonerate innocent men and women based solely on DNA evidence. They will not hear cases that have no DNA evidence to be tested. The majority of the cases they work on are cases from pre-DNA times, when the police could not test the available materials outside of blood type, to see if the samples matched the defendant. Since DNA testing has become easier and more readily available, the Innocence Project has been taking on cases with good DNA samples still held in the evidence for each case.

To be clear: The Innocence Project only works on cases with DNA evidence still in possession by the police which has not previously been tested. This is a very small, small percentage of all the cases across the USA. Given the fact that very few cases actually meet the criteria of the Innocence Project, they have still exonerated 321 people from serious sentences in the past decade or so. 321 people, when less than one percent of all cases meet the Innocence Project’s criteria. This is a shocking and telling number. If 321 people can be proven innocent based on DNA evidence, how many are innocent but can’t be proven so because DNA evidence lacks?

Here is a fact that should, if you are an American and under the impression you live in a free and just country, make your skin absolutely crawl: The Innocence Project is investigating between 4,000 and 6,000 cases at any given time.

Given that they only take on cases that include available DNA samples to be tested, this number is staggering. If 4,000 to 6,000 cases at any given time are being explored by one organization with limited resources, how many are out there being ignored?

With numbers that big, any American feeling safe from being wrongfully convicted in their lifetime is absolutely deluded. It not only could happen to you, it’s a far scarier and more likely threat than being the victim of a terror attack or contracting ebola.

In my own experience, dealing with skeptics and atheists, some seem to have a limit to their skepticism. It’s easy to be skeptical about ghosts and vampires and Gods and prophecy, but it’s not as easy to be skeptical about the murder or rape of another human being. Unfortunately, this is where our skepticism is needed most, because if we continue to put away innocent people at the rate we do, we can no longer claim to be free and the men and women “fighting for our freedom” overseas are indeed, dying for nought.

It’s very easy to react to a heinous crime with emotion, and throw caution and reason out the window. To want to throw the book at someone because the crime is so horrific is an absolutely normal thing, but it should not be how a justice system works. A justice system should want one thing and one thing only: the prevention of more people becoming victims of crime. Putting away an innocent man, not only violates his human rights, but it allows a killer or a rapist to go free. It has been documented in many cases of innocence that the true perpetrator, who remained free, went on to kill and rape more people. Those people who became victims after an innocent man was locked up for their offender’s previous crimes, are no longer just victims of the guilty man, but also victim’s of the state, the jury, the prosecution and everyone in between.

The American justice system can, sadly, be whittled down to nothing more than a modern day lynch mob. It is concerned solely with revenge, emotional reactions and “making someone pay”. The odds of a convicted felon being innocent are off the charts and sometimes I feel like it’s fucking beyond me how anyone living within the borders of that country is not absolutely and inconsolably outraged at this fact.

Then, I remember, I didn’t notice or give a fuck until a friend of mine was locked up in Ohio. It just never crossed my mind to think about the men and women behind bars until he was there.

prisonIt’s my goal here, to educate a few people who may not understand to the extent this problem actually goes. To teach skeptics who can shoot down an argument for God like nobody’s business, but who have no idea how suspect most guilty verdicts are.

In the coming weeks, I want to explore the different causes of innocent men and women being locked up, such as false confessions, faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science, jailhouse snitches and more. I’ll present each cause with example cases that should, if you are a reasonable, logical and rational person, shake you to your core.

Read part 2 here.

To make sure you get the series as it’s posted, sub to me with feedly here, or use the email subscription form in my sidebar.

In the meantime, you can find further reading here:

  1. The Innocence Project
  2. Causes of Wrongful Convictions
  3. 10,000 Innocent People Convicted Each Year
  4. Actual Innocence
  5. Picking Cotton
  6. The Wrong Men

 

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  • Southern Skeptic

    Wonderful post! I remember learning about the concept of a “reasonable doubt” when I saw 12 Angry Men as a child. Even if it looks like someone is guilty, you still can’t vote guilty when there is a reasonable doubt because you could end up putting an innocent person behind bars. Really looking forward to the rest of this series.

    • Thank you! It’s a passion of mine… it’s just so haunting the frequency with which innocent people are convicted. 12 Angry Men should be a must-see for everyone.

  • Deana Naraparaju

    Great post! What i begin to wonder is , is it a good idea to have the general public as jurors. Seems a lottery of random people who may be easily led by a good/bad prosecution. Are they equipped to give a just verdict and be able to take into account evidence without prejudice?

    • Virtual Atheist

      So what would you suggest to replace the jury system?

      The judges who hear the case decide the guilt or innocence?

      Admittedly, they would (or should) have a proper understanding of reasonable doubt, but I suggest that they too would be just as susceptible to emotional arguments as the layman, and would also be just as ‘guilty’ of predisposition to or against a defendant.

      The only way in my opinion is to take human emotion completely out of the equation and allow a sufficiently advance computer program to determine guilt or innocence.

      Thoughts?

      • I like the idea, but is it possible? I think the jury system would work better, not perfectly, but better if jury members were required to take a course prior to being called for jury duty. Just like being called for jury duty, they get called at some point to take the course. The course must include emotional stories of the wrongfully convicted and indicate the ripple effect one case can have on the entire system. They need to be made to understand the gravity of their decision. Then, when called for a case, they would get a brief refresher.

        In the US in particular, much of the population is poorly educated. That’s why this problem is so profound there. Average people on juries have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

        • Virtual Atheist

          The way technology is moving, I put it to you that it won’t be long 🙂

    • I think jurors should have to meet a certain level of education and be able to demonstrate through a series of tests or a course, their ability to judge things fairly. I dunno, I don’t think it will ever be perfect, really.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

      • Deana

        Im in total agreement !

  • au37x18

    Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. There are several
    documentaries around where a group of spectators have to describe a
    scene they have just witnessed. One case is a few people passing a
    ball around and the spectators are asked to count the ball-passes. Not only do they get the number wrong, but almost nobody
    noticed the guy in a gorilla suit dancing amongst the players.

    Another setup is a robbery where three people grab somebody’s camera. A
    woman distracts the victim by starting an argument with him, one man
    takes the camera from his bag and passes it on to another man who runs
    away.

    When the witnesses describe the events and the robbers, most of them get
    it almost completely wrong, but they *insist* their version of events
    is correct. The surer they are, the more they get wrong. Ironically
    the best witness was the one who said he isn’t sure about the details.

    If the police asked me to give eyewitness evidence, I would say that I’m
    not sure at all and will probably not have to give evidence in court.

    I’m not so sure if I would trust the prosecution’s DNA evidence either.
    If someone wants to incriminate you, he/she can plant DNA. Maybe I’ve
    seen too many movies and/or am paranoid 🙂

    • Do you recall the names of those documentaries?

  • Lucius Whitman

    Back when I was studying law during a Paralegal course, one of the things one of my law professors told us over and over was to never trust a case to a jury if it could be at all avoided.

    This was driven home when we acted as jurors during mock trials for the local law school. The mock jury I was part of made their decision based on purely emotional reasons, and one stated that he felt that the defendant (an insurance company) could afford to lose, so they should. Only myself and one other dissented, but it was a majority vote court.

    And these were people who, like myself, had been actually studying law and court procedures for the six months prior to taking part.

    • It is scary, but at the same time, totally understandable. We’re all human, we all succumb to our emotions from time to time. I think we need some alternative to the jury system, because we will never fully eliminate emotion from the decisions being made in court by juries.

  • Wow… that is absolutely awful.

  • Bad Girl Bex

    Zeus be damned GM! I remember seeing a shorter summary of this case on 48hrs a while ago, but this is a complete series about it, that now I just HAVE to watch! Arrgh! It is a fascinating case though and I totally get what you mean by the ‘beyond rational doubt’ thing. The way in which his legal team manage to get experts to give alternate perspectives, explaining each of what initially looked to be damning evidence against him, really does highlight how a jury of regular everyday people are presented by so much contradictory information, for and against the prosecution, it’s almost impossible to expect them to truly know what to think. He makes a good point in explaining how those with money have a much better chance of getting off in these cases, when there is such a limited amount of funds available from the state, when it comes to mounting a defence.

    As someone who has always been anti DP (and who has spent time communicating with people in prison) I know just how unfair some trials can be, purely because of how poorly represented many are, because of limited funds. I’m not for one moment about to play the bleeding heart liberal who claims that everyone is innocent, just because they didn’t get a fair trial; but everyone deserves that fair trial, regardless of who they are, what there social standing is and what the crime entails.

    Now I’m off to go and watch the rest of the series. Seriously, your blog should come with a caveat! “Warning, reading GM’s blog, will probably cause you to invest huge amounts of your time, following all the links and watching all the annoying fascinating videos she includes in there. ENTER AT YOUR OWN PERIL!

    Bex

    • I get so caught up in all those videos myself… I wish there was more time in the day!