Monday, August 27, 2018

Is Reasonable Doubt Self-Defining?, 64 Villanova L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019)

In Wisconsin, our pattern burden of proof instruction in criminal cases concludes by telling jurors "not to search for doubt" but "to search for the truth."  It is obvious to everyone who is not a prosecutor or former prosecutor that such language lowers or diminishes the reasonable doubt (RD) standard.  And if it wasn't obvious, my coauthor Larry White and I twice demonstrated the instruction's burden-lowering effect in controlled studies published in journals at Richmond and Columbia.  (And to to their credit, more than twenty trial court judges now recognize the pattern instruction's defect and have modified the language.)

But what about states that don't attempt any definition of RD?  States that decline to do so contend that RD is self-defining and therefore needs no further explanation.  On the plus-side, jury instructions that leave the term undefined can't do anything blatantly unconstitutional, such as telling jurors "not to search for doubt."  But is RD really self-defining?  Published studies demonstrate that it is not, as jurors fail to distinguish between it and the two lower, civil burdens of proof.  But these studies are old and used small, unrepresentative samples.  Therefore, Larry White and I conducted a new study with more statistical power to see if RD, when left undefined, offers defendants any more protection than two lower standards of proof, preponderance of the evidence (POE) and clear and convincing evidence (CCE).

Our article is forthcoming in the Villanova L. Rev., and you can find a pre-publication draft on SSRN or on my website's articles page.  Read the abstract, after the jump, which includes our findings.  (And scroll to the bottom of the post for a bonus video.)  Spoiler alert: the earlier studies were confirmed.  RD is not self-defining, i.e., when left undefined, there is no statistically significant difference in conviction rates between test participants who received a RD jury instruction, a POE instruction, or a CCE instruction.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Manafort trial and confusion over reasonable doubt

In the ongoing Paul Manafort trial, the jury asked the judge to define the term beyond a reasonable doubt (BRD).  (Actually, jurors may have just asked about reasonable doubt, which indicates they were shifting their focus to the quality of doubt the defendant could produce, rather than focusing on whether the state proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  But that's a story for another day.)  Of course, this has prompted much hand-wringing, including the usual claims from pontificating law professors and judges that there is no way to define BRD without creating further confusion.

But leaving BRD undefined is a huge problem.  Studies that compare juror decision-making across the three burdens of proof -- preponderance, clear and convincing, and BRD -- demonstrate that jurors do not differentiate between / among the three standards.  That is, in controlled studies, mock jurors' conviction rates are not affected by different burden of proof instructions.

Lawrence T. White and I just replicated those experiments, and found the same thing: when BRD is left undefined, the three burdens of proof do not produce significantly different conviction rates, all else being equal.  Our study / article is currently under submission and we expect to finalize a publication agreement by the end of this week, so stay tuned for our pre-publication draft of our article, Is Reasonable Doubt Self-Defining?  In the meantime, read my article in the Calif. L. Rev. Online for a proper definition of reasonable doubt -- one that puts the high burden of proof in context by comparing it to the lower, civil burdens of preponderance and clear and convincing.

But despite all of this, leaving BRD undefined is still better than what Wisconsin does.  Wisconsin defines it in such a way as to completely demolish the burden of proof.  As Larry White and I demonstrated in this Richmond study, and again in this Columbia study, Wisconsin's BRD instruction (JI 140) is so bad that it would be better for defendants if the term were not defined at all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Spin Doctors: Prosecutor Sophistry and the Burden of Proof


Defense lawyers have long complained about Wisconsin's defective, burden-lowering jury instruction (J.I. 140) on the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof.  Prosecutors replied that our complaints were nothing more than mere "opinion," unsupported by actual evidence.  So in response, psychology professor Lawrence T. White and I provided them with the evidence they supposedly wanted: two controlled experiments testing the effect of J.I. 140's closing mandate ("not to search for doubt" but "to search for the truth") on mock juror decision-making.  (Prosecutors never really wanted this evidence; they just demanded it because they never imagined anyone would actually produce it.)  Not surprisingly, telling jurors "not to search for doubt" creates misconceptions about the burden of proof and produces higher conviction rates.  These studies were published in law reviews at Richmond and Columbia.