If you’ve ever watched an episode of Law & Order or another legal show, you know that jurors in criminal cases are typically instructed that they need to believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant committed the crime they’re charged with to find them guilty.
It can be argued that “reasonable doubt” is subjective. Attempts to explain it in jury instructions haven’t always clarified things. Convictions in cases where judges added to the confusion by attempting to explain it themselves have been successfully appealed.
Colorado jury instructions previously defined reasonable doubt as “a doubt which is not a vague, speculative or imaginary doubt, but such a doubt as would cause reasonable people to hesitate to act in matters of importance to themselves.” That changed early this year.
How do the revised instructions describe reasonable doubt?
The Colorado Supreme Court Model Criminal Jury Instructions Committee voted to change jury instructions to tell jurors that if they’re “firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, then the prosecution has proven the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, if there’s a “real possibility that the defendant is not guilty, then the prosecution has failed to prove the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt.”
There’s been mixed reactions in the Colorado legal community. Some prosecutors and public defenders complained that they weren’t consulted or notified before the change was made. One official with Colorado’s Office of the State Public Defender said that “this change unfairly favors the government and will lessen the burden of proof in everyday jurors’ minds and make it easier to overcome the very important presumption of innocence.”
However, this new explanation of reasonable doubt is similar to that in the jury instructions used in the federal court system. One University of Denver law professor thinks it’s clearer than the previous instructions. He said, “The more detail you give in attempting to explain the term, the more likely the jury will just become more confused.”
What’s important if a case goes to trial is that jurors are read the correct instructions and neither a judge nor anyone on either side of the case misleads jurors (intentionally or not) into an incorrect understanding of “reasonable doubt.” That’s just one reason why having experienced legal guidance is crucial to protecting your rights.