The Supreme Judicial Court today updated the definition of "reasonable doubt" that Massachusetts judges have been reading to jurors since 1850, when it was first used in the case of a Harvard professor charged with murdering and dismembering a prominent Beacon Hill doctor.
The updating comes in a ruling on a man convicted of seven counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age
of fourteen for attacks on his stepdaughter in the 1980s, and does nothing for him - the court upheld his convictions. His lawyers had argued that because the judge in his case used a different instruction to the jurors, one that required them to have a "firm" conviction of guilt, rather than an "abiding" conviction, and that "firm" was less absolute than "abiding." The SJC said nope, they mean pretty much the same thing.
Still, the English language changes and the court said it was time to tweak the "Webster charge" that has been the common instruction for more than 150 years - and to require judges to use the new version in all criminal cases going forward, by explaining just what "moral certainty" means when jurors consider whether somebody is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The Webster charge informs the jury that a reasonable doubt exists when "they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge."
The charge is named for the instructions on reasonable doubt given the jury in the case of John White Webster, convicted of killing Dr. George Parkman (of the Parkman House Parkmans) when Parkman began insisting Webster repay a loan.
The charge was formulated by SJC Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw - back in the day, the court heard all murder cases, including Webster's trial, which was also one of the first American trials to feature forensic science - Parkman had a prominent jaw and prosecutors presented a jawbone recovered from under Webster's office at Harvard Medical School (then located along the Charles River on land that's now part of Mass. General).
Other than the moral-certainty clause, the justices said the charge remains a good example of a jury instruction. The new version is:
The burden is on the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charge(s) made against him (her).
What is proof beyond a reasonable doubt? The term is often used and probably pretty well understood, though it is not easily defined. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all possible doubt, for everything in the lives of human beings is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. 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. 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.
I have told you that every person is presumed to be innocent until he or she is proved guilty, and that the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. If you evaluate all the evidence and you still have a reasonable doubt remaining, the defendant is entitled to the benefit of that doubt and must be acquitted.
It is not enough for the Commonwealth to establish a probability, even a strong probability, that the defendant is more likely to be guilty than not guilty. That is not enough. Instead, the evidence must convince you of the defendant's guilt to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces your understanding and satisfies your reason and judgment as jurors who are sworn to act conscientiously on the evidence. "This is what we mean by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.