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Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Last month, following Manawatu farmer Ewan MacDonald’s sensational acquittal for the murder of Scott Guy, UMR Research Limited published a poll purporting to show that just 20 percent of New Zealanders regarded him as innocent. In fact, of those polled, only 48 percent expressly believed Mr MacDonald was guilty, with the remainder either unsure or unwilling to answer the question.

Like the David Bain case, the Scott Guy case will be remembered in New Zealand history for gripping the public’s attention. The legal question jurors must answer in criminal proceedings is not simply, did X kill Y? But rather, is there reasonable doubt that X might not have done it? If reasonable doubt exists, X must be acquitted.

The “beyond reasonable doubt” test came from the English murder case –Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions. In that case, the Court considered the question of whether the prosecution had made out its case sufficiently to justify putting a defendant in prison for life or even condemning him to death. Furthermore, the most famous expression of the test comes from eighteenth-century judge and legal scholar William Blackstone: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

The “beyond reasonable doubt” test now applies to all criminal charges where the prosecution must prove ‘mens rea’ or ‘guilty mind’. Guilty mind refers to a defendant’s criminal intention but also includes recklessness, consciously running a known serious risk, and knowledge of consequences by the perpetrator of the criminal act. Mens rea crimes range from murder and rape to shoplifting.

Conversely, a lower test, on the ‘balance of probabilities’, applies to civil proceedings where the consequences of guilt are deemed less severe. This lower test also applies to less serious criminal offenses such as traffic violations.

For criminal defence lawyers, the test of “beyond reasonable doubt” is a safeguard of civil liberties, as it would be wrong to punish anyone for any serious crime without certainty of his or her guilt. To understand its pertinence, we must put ourselves in the defendant’s shoes – how would we feel if we were wrongly convicted of a crime on the basis of merest suspicion? We remember that Arthur Allan Thomas spent nine years in prison for murders we now know he did not commit. Were it not for the dogged persistence of his supporters, who investigated the technical details of the evidence and found it seriously deficient; he might have languished in prison for another sixteen years.

Sceptics frequently blame lawyers for allowing apparently guilty defendants to walk away free for horrendous crimes. The reality though, is that there is simply insufficient evidence to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the crime was committed.

August 2012

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