O J Simpson Wouldn't Be So Lucky Again: A Jury Must Decide "Beyond Reasonable Doubt" If a Person Is Guilty. but This Hollow and Meaningless Phrase Confounds Justice - So Why Not Borrow from Science to Ensure a Fair Verdict?

By Dawkins, Richard | New Statesman (1996), January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

O J Simpson Wouldn't Be So Lucky Again: A Jury Must Decide "Beyond Reasonable Doubt" If a Person Is Guilty. but This Hollow and Meaningless Phrase Confounds Justice - So Why Not Borrow from Science to Ensure a Fair Verdict?


Dawkins, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


In a court of law - say, at a murder trial - a jury is asked to decide, beyond reasonable doubt, whether a person is guilty or not guilty. In several jurisdictions, including 34 states of the US, a guilty verdict may result in an execution. Numerous cases are on record where later evidence not available at the time of trial, especially DNA evidence, has cast retrospective doubt on a guilty verdict and in some cases led to a posthumous pardon.

Courtroom dramas accurately portray the suspense that hangs in the air when the jury returns to deliver its verdict. All, including the lawyers on both sides and the judge, hold their breath while they wait to hear the foreman of the jury pronounce the words "guilty" or "not guilty". However, if the phrase "beyond reasonable doubt" means what it says, there should be no doubt of the outcome in the mind of anybody who has sat through the same trial as the jury. That includes the judge who, as soon as the jury has delivered its verdict, is prepared to give the order for execution - or release the prisoner without a stain on his character.

And yet, before the jury returned, there was enough "reasonable doubt" in that same judge's mind to keep him on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict.

You cannot have it both ways. Either the verdict is beyond reasonable doubt, in which case there should be no suspense while the jury is out; or there is real, nail-biting suspense, in which case you cannot claim that the facts have been proved "beyond reasonable doubt".

American weather forecasters deliver probabilities, not certainties: "80 per cent probability of rain". Juries are not allowed to do that, but it's what I felt like doing when I served on one. "What is your verdict, guilty or not guilty?" "Seventy-five per cent probability of guilt, m'lud." That would be anathema to our judges and lawyers. There must be no shades of grey: the system insists on certainty, yes or no, guilty or not guilty. Judges may refuse even to accept a divided jury and will send members back into the jury room with instructions not to emerge again until they have somehow managed to achieve unanimity. How is that "beyond reasonable doubt"?

In science, for an experiment to be taken seriously, it must be repeatable. Not all experiments are repeated--we have not world enough and time - but controversial results must be repeat-able, or we don't have to believe them. That is why the world of physics is waiting for repeat experiments before taking up the claim that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

Shouldn't the decision to execute somebody, or imprison them for life, be taken seriously enough to warrant a repeat of the experiment? I'm not talking about a retrial. Nor an appeal, although that is desirable, and happens when there is some disputed point of law or new evidence. But suppose every trial had two juries, sitting in the same courtroom yet forbidden to talk to each other. Who will bet that they would always reach the same verdict? …

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O J Simpson Wouldn't Be So Lucky Again: A Jury Must Decide "Beyond Reasonable Doubt" If a Person Is Guilty. but This Hollow and Meaningless Phrase Confounds Justice - So Why Not Borrow from Science to Ensure a Fair Verdict?
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