Jury Instructions - Reasonable Doubt

Favorable and Noteworthy Decisions in the Supreme Court and Federal Appellate Courts

Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275 (1993)

A charge which mischaracterizes the concept of reasonable doubt can never be harmless error. The state trial court equated reasonable doubt with “a doubt which would give rise to a grave uncertainty” and “a substantial doubt” and “a serious doubt, for which you could give good reason.” This violates the ruling in Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (1990), and is not harmless error. No harmless error analysis would be undertaken in such cases.

Payne v. Stansberry, 760 F.3d 10 (D. C. Cir. 2014)

The trial judge instructed the jury (according to the transcript), “If you find that the government has failed to prove any element of the offense, beyond a reasonable doubt, you must find that defendant guilty.” Though this may have been a transcription error, the government failed to prove that it was. And if it were simply a slip of the tongue, that does not alter the fact that it was obvious and plain error affecting the defendant’s substantial rights. Appellate counsel’s failure to raise this issue on appeal amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Gibson v. Ortiz, 387 F.3d 812 (9th Cir. 2004)

The California state jury instruction in this case provided that a prior sexual offense need only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence; and that a prior sexual offense, if proven, could lead to the inference that the defendant committed the charged offense. This violated the due process clause, because it suggested a burden of less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The court also held that inconsistent instructions that emphasized the proper burden of proof did not cure the infirmity. “Language that merely contradicts and does not explain a constitutionally infirm instruction will not suffice to absolve the infirmity. A reviewing court has no way of knowing which of the two irreconcilable instructions the jurors applied in reaching their verdict.” Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307, 322 (1985). See also Doe v. Busby, 661 F.3d 1001 (9th Cir. 2011). The Ninth Circuit later overruled Gibson v. Ortiz, on the basis that it applied the incorrect AEDPA standard of review. Byrd v. Lewis, 566 F.3d 855 (9th Cir. 2009).

Wansing v. Hargett, 341 F.3d 1207 (10th Cir. 2003)

When the jury asked the judge to provide guidance on the definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the state judge explained at some length (and somewhat unintelligibly) that proof beyond a reasonable doubt could be compared to the doubt that a groom or bride might rely on to call off a wedding at the last minute while standing at the alter. Yet, he also cautioned that each juror had to decide for himself what the real definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt was. Citing Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1 (1994) and Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (1990), the Tenth Circuit grants the writ of habeas corpus.

Humphrey v. Cain, 138 F.3d 552 (5th Cir. 1998) (en banc)

The state trial court's jury instruction on reasonable doubt was defective pursuant to Cage and Sullivan. The trial court instructed the jury that reasonable doubt meant "grave uncertainty," "moral certainty," "actual or substantial doubt," and "a serious doubt, for which you could give good reason." The full court hearing the case en banc also concluded that this claim was not Teague-barred and amounted to "structural error" that could be remedied in a habeas petition.

Bloomer v. United States, 162 F.3d 187 (2d Cir. 1998)

The district court’s numerous “embellishments” on the definition of proof beyond a reasonable doubt were erroneous. The trial court instructed the jury that if they did not find the elements proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury “could” return a not guilty verdict. Actually, absent such proof, the jury would be required to return a not guilty verdict. In addition, the trial court misleadingly explained, “To support a verdict of guilty, you need not find every fact beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court also incorrectly stated, “So a reasonable doubt means only a substantial doubt.” The Second Circuit also concluded that the failure to object to these improper instructions was probably ineffective assistance of counsel, but additional testimony was required in the lower court before this decision could be made with finality.

Lanigan v. Maloney, 853 F.2d 40 (1st Cir. 1988)

The First Circuit concludes that the harmless error rule will almost never apply in a case where the trial jury was incorrectly instructed with regard to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

United States v. Birbal, 62 F.3d 456 (2d Cir. 1995)

In the court’s instructions on reasonable doubt, the judge stated, “You need not find every fact beyond a reasonable doubt” and “So a reasonable doubt means only a substantial doubt.” Both of these statements were erroneous and even without objection, amounted to plain error requiring reversal of the conviction. Moreover, the court’s statement that “Should the prosecution fail to prove the guilt of a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, you may acquit the defendant” was also erroneous.

Perez v. Irwin, 963 F.2d 499 (2d Cir. 1992)

The state trial court instructed the jury that a reasonable doubt meant “a doubt to a moral certainty of guilty.” This instruction inappropriately cast the burden on the defense to establish a doubt. Moreover, the “moral certainty” language suggests that the doubt should be based on feelings rather than fact.

United States v. Woods, 812 F.2d 1483 (4th Cir. 1987)

Elaborating on the meaning of “reasonable doubt” in jury instructions is not permitted.

United States v. Glass, 846 F.2d 386 (7th Cir. 1988)

It is inappropriate for a judge to give an instruction which defines reasonable doubt.

United States v. Nolasco, 926 F.2d 869 (9th Cir. 1991)

The trial court has discretion in all cases to define the meaning of “reasonable doubt.”

United States v. May, 68 F.3d 515 (D.C.Cir. 1995)

The trial court instructed the jury that “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you with a strong belief in a defendant’s guilt” and that “if based on your consideration of the evidence you have a strong belief that the defendant is guilty of one or more of the crimes charged, it is your duty to find him guilty.” This is incorrect, and cannot be harmless error. However, the error does not amount to plain error and a remand was necessary to determine if an objection was made during an unrecorded jury charge conference.

United States v. Merlos, 8 F.3d 48 (D.C.Cir. 1993)

Instructing the jury that they could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if the evidence caused them to have a “strong belief” in the defendant’s guilt is constitutionally deficient. While this error is not harmless, it was not plain error and the failure to object waived the error. See also United States v. Loriano, 996 F.2d 424 (D.C.Cir. 1993).