When I initially developed the idea for a book explaining some of the complexities of criminal law, the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century" had recently concluded in a controversial acquittal verdict, the second Menendez trial had resulted in first-degree murder convictions and the Oklahoma bombing trial was gearing up. Although each trial was unique, they were also similar in the sense that they were intensely scrutinized by the media and generated hours of commentary by pundits attempting to explain the legal wranglings both inside and outside the respective courtrooms. While much of the commentary was timely and accurate, the time limitations (and somewhat sensationalistic nature) of network television programming simply did not accommodate detailed, context-rich explanations of the law in action. As a result, many followers of these media intense trials may have been left with feelings of confusion and skepticism concerning the American criminal justice system.
For example, at the conclusion of the Simpson criminal trial, ardent followers reached dramatically different conclusions as to whether the prosecution had met its burden-of-proof standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Some appeared to believe that this standard was just another way of saying, "apply your common sense to the evidence." Yet others seemed to interpret "beyond a reasonable doubt" to mean "beyond all possible doubt." Is either interpretation correct? Or does the answer lie somewhere between the two? Furthermore, how did we arrive at such a seemingly ambiguous standard for determining a person's guilt?