Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Court limits comparison of burdens of proof

In order to obtain a conviction, the state must prove a person committed each and every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Nothing new or earth-shattering there. It's one of the first concepts in criminal law that we are taught.

But what is beyond a reasonable doubt? There is no legal definition of the term in Texas. In fact, it's a bit like pornography -- the jurors will know when they see it.

The prosecutor likes to tell the jurors that proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all doubt. Fair enough. But where does that put the line?

We have a multitude of levels of proof. A police officer must have probable cause to arrest someone. There must be probable cause to support a warrant. A grand jury must find there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed a crime in order to vote to indict him.

Over at the civil courthouse money is awarded if a plaintiff can prove his claim by a preponderance of the evidence. The judge will even tell the jurors that a preponderance of the evidence just means more than 50%. A "feather's worth" of evidence can be enough to send a plaintiff out of the courthouse with a smile on his face or a frown.

Want some expert witness testimony to support your theory of the case? You'll need to prove that your witness is an expert by clear and convincing evidence. If the state wants to remove a child from a custodial parent, the state will need to make its case by clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is "proof that will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established."

But what if the state wants to infringe upon the liberty of one of its citizens? Back in 1991, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided how the term beyond a reasonable doubt was to be defined in Geesa v. State, 820 SW2d 154, 162 (Tex.Crim.App. 1991):
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, must be proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs.
This definition was cobbled together from the Texas Penal Code and the instructions given in the federal system. The CCA held that this definition was to be included in every criminal jury charge regardless of whether the defense requested it.

Nine years later the CCA decided that what it giveth, it can taketh away, too, as the judges held that the Geesa definition was serving only to confuse jurors. In Paulson v. State28 SW3d 570, 573 (Tex.Crim.App. 2000). 

So, what is a criminal defense attorney to do when there is no definition of the term of art by which a jury decides whether to brand someone as a criminal for life? You compare the various levels of proof. You "walk up" the levels of proof to demonstrate to the jurors how high the state's burden is. You compare preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt. You get the panel talking about what quantum of proof they would require in order to find someone guilty.

Unless the judge decides you don't get to. In Anderson v. State, No. 07-10-1039-CR (Tex.App.--Amarillo 2011), the Amarillo Court of Appeals decided that it is not a per se abuse of discretion if a trial judge does not permit a defense attorney to question the potential jurors about the differences in the burden of proof between a civil case and a criminal prosecution.

Now I have plenty of colleagues who would argue that it's not a good idea to use the stair-step model of the levels of proof during voir dire because it might convey to the jury that you can just "add up" the evidence to determine whether the state has met its burden. The stair-step model also doesn't do a good job of demonstrating the vast gulf between probable cause and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and could serve to reduce the quantum of proof a juror would require to return a guilty verdict.

However, most of our clients start off (way) behind the eight-ball at trial and taking away the ability to compare the various levels of proof only serves to limit further the ability to provide an effective defense at trial. The Amarillo Court seems to have forgotten that those on trial are innocent unless proven guilty and that the courts should bend over backwards to ensure that they enjoy due process of law.

If you're not going to define the term by which we ask jurors to find folks guilty, then you sure as hell shouldn't limit the ability of defense counsel to demonstrate to potential jurors just how high the state's burden should be.

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