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SJC Mandates New Jury Instruction on Reasonable Doubt

gavel-2-1409592-mIn a criminal case, the standard of proof is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the Commonwealth must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury can convict him. At the end of a trial, before the jury makes its determination as to whether the defendant is in fact guilty or not guilty, the judge provides the jury with instructions. These jury instructions are basically a set of legal rules that the jury must follow when deciding the case. One of the instructions provides a more in depth explanation of the meaning of reasonable doubt.

Over the years, two main instructions on reasonable doubt have developed. One comes from Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 295, 320 (1850) and is referred to as the Webster instruction. The other comes from the Federal Judicial Center’s Pattern Criminal Jury Instructions. The Webster version informs the jury that reasonable doubt exists when “they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.” The Federal Judicial Center’s instruction states that “proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt.” Despite the length of time that has passed since the Webster instruction was written, and the fact that there has been some criticism of the charge for its outdated language, it has been the preferred version for criminal defendants for more than a century. While a defense attorney may request the Webster instruction, it has historically been up to the judge to determine the specific language of the reasonable doubt instruction.

Whether judges should continue to have such discretion, however, was recently addressed by the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Russell. The defendant in Russell was charged with indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of fourteen. The defendant’s lawyer requested the Webster instruction. The judge declined to give the Webster charge and instead gave an instruction that was a hybrid between Webster and the Federal Judicial Center’s instruction. The judge’s instruction omitted Webster’s directive that in order to find the defendant guilty, the jurors had to feel “an abiding conviction to a moral certainty of the truth of the charges.” In place of that language, the judge inserted the following language from the Federal Judicial Center’s instruction: “[P]roof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt…. If, based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty. If, on the other hand, you think there is a real possibility that the defendant is not guilty, you must give him the benefit of the doubt and find him not guilty.”

The SJC concluded that although the judge’s charge was technically sufficient to pass constitutional muster, “a modernized version of the Webster charge must be given in [future] criminal trials.” In explaining this decision, the Court stated that it was “mindful of the criticism surrounding some of the outmoded language employed” in Webster, in particular, the phrase “moral certainty.” The Court also noted that it was desirable to avoid “individualized embellishments among judges” which would likely create “uncertainty and breed needless appeals.”

Therefore, the Court mandated a uniform instruction that uses more modern language, while preserving “the power, efficacy, and essence of the Webster charge.” Specifically, the Court stated that the Webster charge would benefit from further clarification of the phrase ‘moral certainty.’ The clarification consists of an additional sentence into the existing Webster charge: after Webster’s directive that “[a] charge is proved beyond a reasonable doubt if, after you have compared and considered all of the evidence, you have in your minds an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge is true,” the judge must further state, “When we refer to moral certainty, we mean the highest degree of certainty possible in matters relating to human affairs — based solely on the evidence that has been put before you in this case.”

If you or a loved one has been charged with a criminal case, you will need a defense attorney who is up to date on changes in the law and who knows how to use such changes to his clients’ advantage. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney. Contact him for a free consultation today.