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What is Reasonable Doubt?

January 22, 2019

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Being convicted of murder in Pennsylvania may seem like a hopeless situation. However, those that have been convicted and are currently serving time in jail just received a bit of hope, thanks to the language a judge used in a murder case.

The Case of Basil Brooks

The case in question was that of Basil Brooks’, who was charged with killing Derrick Jones, shooting him in the street in West Philadelphia. There wasn’t a lot of evidence against Brooks. The only real evidence was that of an eyewitness who was impaired at the time and could not identify Brooks in a group of photos. Still the jury trial went on.

While giving the jury instructions, Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes was attempting to describe reasonable doubt to the jury. Oddly, she compared it to being told that a loved one has a life-threatening condition, and that the only treatment was experimental surgery. Of course, said Hughes, family members would seek a second opinion. They would still have no guarantees, however. They would only have removed all reasonable doubt by getting that second opinion.

It is an odd way of describing reasonable doubt. Now, Brooks is taking the case to Federal Court hoping to have the conviction overturned. So far, the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania’s Eastern District has agreed. Hughes made the jury lean towards convicting, when they are supposed to leave the court room with only their own opinions formed.

The Definition of Reasonable Doubt

According to The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the definition of beyond a reasonable doubt is, “requiring the jury to be satisfied to a moral certainty that every element of the crime has been proven by the prosecution.”

The definition goes on to say that the jury does not need to be absolutely certain that the defendant committed the crime. The evidence simply needs to be so compelling that no ordinary person would have any doubt left in their mind.

In 1994, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ simply meant that there was very little doubt in the minds of the jurors about a defendant’s guilt. That definition is closer to that of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. With very little evidence, it also doesn’t seem to apply to the Brooks case.

Now, some are wondering how many convictions will be overturned based on Hughes’ instructions. Judges do have to communicate with the jury in order to explain legal concepts. They also typically have discretion as to how they want to describe those concepts. They are not however, to sway the jury either way or cause them to lean towards either a guilty or not guilty verdict.

New Trials Ordered

Technically, any case presided over by Judge Hughes could potentially be reviewed. So far, two new trials in which the defendants were convicted of murder have already been ordered by Federal judges. A third case is currently being reviewed for also potentially receiving a new trial.

The District Attorney’s office that once defended Hughes’ instruction, is no longer fighting it. They are simply trying to grasp how to deal with the dozen or so cases that may be awarded new trials, and may have old convictions overturned.

Contact a Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney

Anyone that has been charged with a crime, or believes they have been wrongly convicted, needs to speak to a criminal defense lawyer in Pennsylvania right away. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, we have the experience needed to fight for your rights in court and make sure that every trial proceeds in a fair and just manner. If you have been charged or convicted, call us today at (215) 486-0123 or fill out our online form.



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