Is America Turning Away From “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”?

By Andreas Kuersten

What do the responses to the George Zimmerman case and military sexual assault crisis have in common?  At first glance, both are movements expressing displeasure with the manner in which certain criminal cases have been handled.  Yet, beyond this, they also appear to show a growing American discomfort with a criminal legal system that tilts in favor of the accused.  Specifically, the high standard that crimes be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

ZZZZMany critics of the verdict in the Zimmerman case claim that he should have been convicted of second-degree murder or, at the very least, manslaughter.  Under Florida law, the former requires a showing, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the “unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by an act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life…without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual.”  Manslaughter, in turn, requires proof that the accused killed another through an “act, procurements, or culpable negligence…without lawful justification.”  The invocations of lawful- and unlawfulness by these two statutes brings in the issue of self-defense.  Self-defense can have the effect of making the killings justified and therefore supersede any findings of guilt.  This also leads one to Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law.  At its basic level, Florida self-defense law allows the use of force, “except deadly force,” when one “reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend [themselves] or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.”  Yet the ordinary duty to retreat from confrontation and limitations on deadly force are erased if one “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to [themselves] or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

News outlets widely noted that the Zimmerman prosecution faced an uphill battle from the start.  The biggest problem was that there just wasn’t clear evidence where it mattered most.  What was clear were simply the basics.  An overzealous neighborhood watchman stalked a teenager, there was a verbal confrontation, a physical altercation ensued, and Zimmerman ended up shooting Trayvon Martin through the chest, killing him.  Who initiated the physical violence?  Who had the advantage during the fight?  What was the severity of the violence?  These questions must be answered in order to determine the pertinent issue beyond a reasonable doubt and whether the killing was lawful or not – ultimately, whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense under the law.

As it stood, Zimmerman claimed he was on the losing side of the fight.  His bloodied state in police photos serves to back this contention.  Lending to the credibility of this account, and casting reasonable doubt on the murder and manslaughter charges, is the fact that the youthful Martin had a more impressive physique than the short, overweight, and older Zimmerman.  It is clear who would have the upper hand in a fight.

Further adding to the reasonable doubt were conflicting witness accounts, ineffective witnesses for the prosecution, and the inability to determine who was screaming for help in the only audio recording of the incident.  Zimmerman instigated the interaction, but who started the violence and how did it play out?  It matters who initiated the use of force and how severe that force was.  All of this must be examined under the law, and the possibility that Zimmerman faced “great bodily harm” in a physical altercation instigated by Martin, therefore legally permitting his use of deadly defensive force, was deemed reasonable by the jury.  Not that this was the case, but that it was reasonably doubtful that Zimmerman’s actions fit the definitions of second-degree murder or manslaughter and reasonable that they qualified as self-defense under Florida law.

Women MilitarySimilar troubles of proof are involved in the scourge of sexual assault in the military.  Sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, in both military and civilian legal systems, for a number of reasons.  They often involve alcohol or drugs, few witnesses (usually just the parties involved), victims unwilling to cooperate, and a general lack of evidence.  These combine to hinder findings on the central issues: the presence or lack of consent, reasonable belief of consent, and the capacity to consent in the first place.  These troubles of proof mirror those in the Zimmerman case.

Stories of sexual assault in the military presented by the film The Invisible War, Rolling Stone, and other media outlets are heart-wrenching, but the sad truth is that many would not result in convictions in military or civilian courts.  The evidence is simply not there to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, whether intrinsic to the given incident or due to mishandling by superiors or investigative agencies.

The significant legal hurdle of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is being implicitly and explicitly challenged in the Zimmerman and military situations, and others that are similar, as critics argue that these cases were decided incorrectly and there actually existed enough proof for convictions.  These conclusions result from heightened sensitivity concerning these cases.  Under the law and the standard we have erected, they are legally deficient.  Those decrying failures in evidence gathering, prosecutorial strategy, and law writing produce more legitimate arguments than those who try to claim insufficient evidence was actually sufficient.  The latter implicitly advocate a possibly dangerous shift in criminal law.

Heightened public sensitivity to certain issues is one of the reasons we have such a high standard of proof in criminal cases.  Criminal trials should not be decided by popular opinion or mobs, but by the application of law to fact.  Now this can have problems where systems are biased or compromised by racism, but the facts in the Zimmerman case produce reasonable doubt under the law absent race, as do those in many sexual assault cases.  The fact that Zimmerman’s trial largely resulted from public unrest and pressure, after the special prosecutor initially recommended no charges be filed, strengthens the argument that he required significant legal protections in order to receive a fair trial.

Criminal convictions also have a very high standard because of the forces working against the accused.  The founding fathers decried trials by the Crown that did not afford the individual a reasonable chance of defense and where innocent people were punished.  This weariness of government power in criminal trials has persisted.  In the United States, the state prosecutes, and only the state.  This means the weight of America comes down on those accused of crimes.  We have therefore, as a nation, determined that these Gavelindividuals require and deserve significant protections.  They receive the benefit of the doubt, the reasonable doubt, because of the power working against them, the sanctions they face, and their presumption of innocence.

In a speech on the Zimmerman trial and verdict, President Obama noted that, “In a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant.”  But it is more than relevant, it is central and conclusive.  To be clear, the actions in the Zimmerman and sexual assault cases are wrong, but this does not automatically equate to legal guilt, and for good reason.  The protections afforded those accused, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” especially, may result in guilty individuals walking free, or those who are morally wrong but not criminally.  This, however, is a balance we as a nation have accepted as the best legal formulation for overall justice.  To quote Sir William Blackstone, one of the most respected legal minds in history, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  It is hard to say that America would be better off if this principle is abandoned.

Picture 1: Associated Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Picture 2: Binksternet at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Picture 3: Chris Potter (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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