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Primary Sources: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Judge Lemuel Shaw's historic instructions to the jury during the trial of John Webster:

...A few other general remarks occur to me upon this subject, which I will submit to your consideration. Where, for instance, probable proof is brought of a state of facts tending to criminate the accused, the absence of all evidence tending to a contrary conclusion is to be considered, -- though not alone entitled too much weight; because the burden of proof lies on the accuser to make out the whole case by substantive evidence. But when pretty stringent proof of circumstances is produced, tending to support the charge, and it is apparent that the accused is so situated that he could offer evidence of all the facts and circumstances as they existed, and show, if such were the truth, that the suspicious circumstances can be accounted for consistently with his innocence, and he fails to offer such proof, the natural conclusion is, that the proof if produced, instead of rebutting, would tend to sustain the charge. But this is to be cautiously applied, and only in cases where it is manifest that proofs are in the power of the accused, not accessible to the prosecution.

To the same head may be referred all attempts on the part of the accused to suppress evidence, to suggest false and deceptive explanations, and to cast suspicion, without just cause, on other persons: all or any of which tend somewhat to prove consciousness of guilt, and, when proven, to exert an influence against the accused. But this consideration is not to be pressed too urgently; because an innocent man, when placed by circumstances in a condition of suspicion and danger, may resort deception in a hope of avoiding the force of such proofs. Such was the case often mentioned in the books, and cited here yesterday, of a man convicted of the murder of his niece, who had suddenly disappeared under circumstances which created a strong suspicion that she was murdered. He attempted to impose on the Court by presenting another girl as the nice. The deception was discovered and naturally operated against him, though the actual appearance of the niece alive, afterwards, proved conclusively that he was not guilty of the murder.

One other general remark on the subject of circumstantial evidence is this; that inferences drawn from independent sources different from each other, but tending to the same conclusion, not only support each other, but do so with an increased weight. To illustrate this, suppose in the case just mentioned of the wad of a pistol consisting of a part of a ballad, and the other part of the pocket of the accused. It is not absolutely conclusive that the accused loaded and wadded the pistol himself; he might have picked up the piece of paper in the street. But suppose that by another and independent witness it were proven that that individual purchased such a ballad at his shop; and further, from another witness, that he purchased such a pistol at another shop. Here are circumstances from different and independent sources, bearing upon the same conclusion, to wit, -- that the accused loaded and used the pistol; and they, therefore, have an increased weight in establishing the proof of fact.

I will conclude what I have to say on this subject, by a reference to a few obvious and well-established rules, suggested by experience, to be applied to the reception and effect of circumstantial evidence.

The first is, that the several circumstances upon which the conclusion depends must be fully established by proof. They are facts from which the main fact is to be inferred; and they are to be proven by competent evidence, and by the same weight and force of evidence, as if each one were itself the main fact in issue. Under this rule, every circumstance relied upon as material is to be brought to the test of strict proof; and great care is to be taken in guarding against feigned and pretended circumstances which may be designedly contrived and arranged so as to create or divert suspicion and prevent the discovery of the truth. These, by care and vigilance, may generally be detected, because things are so ordered by Providence, -- events and their incidents are so combined and linked together, -- that real occurrences leave behind them vestiges, by which, if carefully followed, the true character of the occurrences themselves may be discovered. A familiar instance is, where a person has been slain by the hands of others, and circumstances are so arranged as to make it appear that the deceased committed suicide. In a case recorded as having actually occurred, the print of a bloody hand was discovered on the deceased. On examination, however, it was the print of a left hand upon the left hand of the deceased. It being impossible that this should have been occasioned by the deceased herself, the print proved the presence and agency of a third person, and excluded the supposition of suicide. So where a person found dead, shot by a pistol-ball, and a pistol belonging to himself was found in his hand, apparently just discharged; indicating death by suicide. Upon further examination, it appearing that the ball which caused the mortal wound was too large for that pistol, the conclusion was inevitable that suicide in the mode suggested must have been impossible.

The next rule to which I ask your attention is, that all the facts proven must be consistent with each other, and with the main fact sought to be proved. When a fact has occurred, with a series of circumstances preceding, accompanying, and following it, we know that these must all have been once consistent with each other; otherwise the fact would not have been possible. Therefore, if any one fact necessary to the conclusion is wholly inconsistent with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused, it breaks the chain if circumstantial evidence upon which the inference depends; and, however plausible or apparently conclusive the other circumstances may be, the charge must fail.

Of this character is the defense usually called an alibi; that is, that the accused was elsewhere at the time of the offence is alleged to have been committed. If this is true, -- that being impossible that the accused could be in two places at the same time, -- it is a fact inconsistent with that sought to be proved, and excludes its possibility.

This is a defence often attempted by contrivance, subornation, and perjury. The proof, therefore, offered to sustain it, is to be subjected to a rigid scrutiny, because, without attempting to control or rebut the evidence of facts sustaining the charge, it attempts to prove affirmatively another fact wholly inconsistent with it; and this defence is equally available, if satisfactory established, to avoid the force of positive, as of circumstantial evidence. In considering the strength of the evidence necessary to sustain this defence, it is obvious that all testimony tending to show that the accused was in another place at the time of the offence, is in direct conflict with that which tends to prove that he was at the place where the crime was committed, and actually committed it. In this conflict of evidence, whatever tends to support the one, tends in the same degree to rebut and overthrow the other; and it is for the jury to decide where the truth lies.

Another rule is, that circumstances taken together should be of a conclusive nature and tendency, leading on the whole to a satisfactory conclusion, and producing in effect a reasonable and moral certainty that the accused, and no one else, committed the offence charged. It is not sufficient that they create a probability, though a strong one; and if, therefore, assuming all the facts to be true which the evidence tends to establish, they may yet be accounted for upon any hypothesis which does not include the guilt of the accused, the proof fails. It is essential, therefore, that the circumstances taken as a whole, and giving them their reasonable and just weight and no more, should to a moral certainty exclude every other hypothesis. The evidence must establish the corpus delicti, as it is termed, or the offence committed as charged; and, in case of homicide, must not only prove a death by violence, but must, to a reasonable extent, exclude the hypothesis of suicide, and a death by the act of any other person. This is to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs and depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty. If upon such proof there be reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; -- a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt; because if the law should go further than this, and require absolute certainty, as it mostly depends upon considerations of a moral nature, it would exclude circumstantial evidence altogether.





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