Reasonable doubt in a Massachusetts criminal trial defined by the SJC

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has just issued a decision establishing a single definition of reasonable doubt, the standard by which jurors are to find the defendant guilty of a crime. The decision, published and released under the case heading of Commonwealth v. Gerald Russell, marks a significant effort to protect the most important legal principal in Constitutional law.


The 150-year-old Webster Instruction

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a difficult concept to understand and to explain, and is the most difficult standard for any party to meet. Courts have been relying specifically on one definition of this standard, published over 150 years ago in the case of Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295 (1850). The Supreme Judicial Court explained the standard of finding guilt beyond reasonable doubt to mean that the jury, after considering the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn from them, reached a “satisfactory conclusion” of “moral certainty” that the defendant committed the charged offense. The courts then derived from this decision what has become the model “Webster instruction” – which requires a “moral certainty” and an “abiding conviction.”

The reality is that judges have never been required to use the “Webster instruction” in their trials. However, it was always good practice to stick to this language in order to avoid a reversal on appeal. For example, in the case of Com. v. Russell, the trial judge did not use the Webster instruction, and instead incorporated the instruction adopted by the Federal Court system, which defines proof beyond a reasonable doubt as “proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt…[without] a real possibility that he is not guilty…” The SJC did not find this instruction to be incorrect, but it was concerned with the confusion that might still arise with this type of language. Though the judge in Russell failed to give the correct jury instruction, many judges were reading the jury instruction properly and giving the Webster Instruction.

The Russell Court redefines “Moral Certainty”
In its decision in Com. v. Russell, the SJC created a new instruction to replace the Webster instruction. The Court also required all Massachusetts trial judges to use this new language in all future criminal trials. According to the SJC, the new language provides a clearer and more modern definition of the standard that today’s jurors could better understand, particularly with regards to the words “moral certainty” as founded on facts rather than feelings. If a trial judge uses veers from this instruction, the entire case could be deemed a mistrial and the defendant would be entitled to a new trial – or possibly even a dismissal.

Beginning on January 27, 2015, Massachusetts trial courts must instruct the jurors that proof beyond a reasonable doubt means that a juror has considered all the evidence and is left with “an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge is true.” The Court then defines “moral certainty” as “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.” The evidence must create “a certainty that convinces your understanding and satisfies your reason and judgment…”

Will It Really Make a Difference?
It is critical for a judge in particular in an OUI arrest to properly instruct the jury on the definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The language an abiding conviction to a near moral certitude conveys that to a jury that the standard is not suspicion, it is not whether the jury believes something is more likely than not or even probable, but that it is a near moral certitude and this definition properly defines proof beyond a reasonable doubt. As a Massachusetts OUI Lawyer, I have always been arguing this standard to the jury but it will require that the judge provide this precise instruction at trial when instructing the jury.

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