“As is always true in criminal cases, failure to prove beyond a reasonable doubt even one element of a crime will result in a not-guilty verdict…” – State Attorney William Gladson
When an Ocala woman accused of shooting her neighbor through her closed front door was charged with manslaughter instead of murder, some people were outraged. Critics of the prosecutor argued that the woman, 58-year-old Susan Lorincz, should have been charged with second-degree murder because the shooting appeared in part to be racially motivated.
Lorincz, who is white, allegedly shot 35-year-old Ajike Owens, a black woman and mother of four, during an argument. Police say the neighbors had an ongoing feud over children making noise.
The case illustrates the fundamental role of constitutional rights in our criminal justice system. That a jury can find someone only after finding that the evidence proves their guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt” is considered part of the “due process of law” to which every American is entitled according to the U.S. Constitution.
The Role of Reasonable Doubt
Prosecutors will generally not bring a case unless they are certain they can win a conviction. A conviction is unlikely if a defense attorney can show that a defendant was deprived of any aspect of due process.
According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute, the “Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments “[protect] the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “The reasonable doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure. It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error. The standard provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence—that bedrock ‘axiomatic and elementary’ principle whose ‘enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.’”
In other words, when a person pleads “Not Guilty” a juror is to believe that the defendant is innocent until and unless the prosecution provides evidence proving the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Exactly is Reasonable Doubt?
According to Florida Jury Instruction in Criminal Cases:
“A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt.
On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing, and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable. It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.“
The definition of reasonable doubt in federal law is a bit more clear:
‘It is not required that the government prove guilt beyond all possible doubt. The test is one of reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt is a doubt based upon reason and common sense—the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt must, therefore, be proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it in the most important of his own affairs. The jury will remember that a defendant is never to be convicted on mere suspicion or conjecture.’
Thus, it is the role of the criminal defense attorney to cast as much doubt on the prosecution’s case as possible. A skilled and aggressive defense lawyer does this by fighting to exclude evidence that was obtained in violation of a defendant’s rights, such as an improper search warrant, violation of Miranda rights, or a forced confession. Other ways for a criminal defense attorney to cast reasonable doubt on the state’s case is to question the reliability of prosecution witnesses or provide a credible alternative theory as to who may have committed the crime.
If you’ve been arrested, talk to the Orlando criminal defense attorneys at the Rivas Law Firm. Call 407-644-2466 for a free consultation.