Reasonable Doubt


Franklin County Criminal Law Casebook

Reproduced with permission from:
Timothy E. Pierce and the Franklin County Public Defender Office

R.C. 2901.05(D) -- Definition of "reasonable doubt" which must be read to the jury as a part of instructions.
State v. Demus, 192 Ohio App. 3d 181, 2011-Ohio-124, ¶23-32 – Defense counsel argued that if the jury wanted to hear from a witness who witnessed the entirety of a chase during which drugs were jettisoned, that might be the basis for finding reasonable doubt. The judge erroneously sustained the prosecutor’s objection, editorializing, “That’s not the law and the jury will disregard that.” However, the error was harmless in view of overwhelming evidence of guilt.
In re Winship (1970), 397 U.S. 358, 364 -- Due process requires that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.
Sullivan v. Louisiana (1993), 508 U.S. 275 -- The failure to include a proper instruction on reasonable doubt amounts to a denial of the right to jury trial. Failure to include a proper instruction makes the jury's verdict void and consequently harmless error analysis may not be applied. At p. 277: "...(A)lthough a judge may direct a verdict for the defendant if the evidence is legally insufficient to establish guilt, he may not direct a verdict for the State, no matter how overwhelming the evidence."
Victor v. Nebraska (1994), 511 U.S. 1 -- Although the terms "moral evidence" and "moral certainty" may be antiquated, their inclusion in an instruction on the meaning of proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not render the instruction unconstitutional, provided the instructions as a whole correctly convey, without understating or lessening, the government's burden of proof.
State v. Maurer (1984), 15 Ohio St. 3d 239 -- Paragraph six of the syllabus: "The standard of proof in a capital prosecution is proof beyond a reasonable doubt as defined in R.C. 2901.05 and not proof beyond all doubt. (State v. Jenkins, 15 Ohio St. 3d 164, paragraph eight of the syllabus, followed.)
State v. Nabozny (1978), 54 Ohio St. 2d 195 -- Paragraph two of the syllabus: "The definition of 'reasonable doubt' set forth in R.C. 2901.05 correctly conveys the concept of reasonable doubt and, therefore, is not an unconstitutional dilution of the state's requirement to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Also see State v. Cotton (1978), 56 Ohio St. 2d 8, 13.
Thomas v. Arn (6th Cir. 1983), 704 F. 2d 865, 869 -- "...Ohio's definitions of reasonable doubt and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, when read as a whole and taken in the context in which the instructions are presented here, do not offend due process or any other federally guaranteed constitutional right." Also see State v. Smith (1977), 59 Ohio App. 2d 194, 205-206.
State v. Seneff (1980), 70 Ohio App. 2d 171, 178 -- Any addition to the statutory definition of reasonable doubt is inadvisable. The definition is simple and complete and was calculated by the legislature to avoid reversals based on erroneous ad hoc definitions created by trial courts.
State v. Swanson (1984), 16 Ohio App. 3d 375 -- Failure to heed the admonition that the statutory definition of reasonable doubt should not be elaborated upon warrants reversal as a sanction, without consideration of prejudice.
State v. Sargent (1975), 41 Ohio St. 2d 85 -- Amplification of the statutory definition of reasonable doubt is prejudicial when it contradicts the statutory definition and diminishes the state's burden. Instruction in question (p. 87, fn. 2) referred to honest uncertainty and language calling for an unemotional approach to the evidence. Also see State v. VanGundy (1992), 64 Ohio St. 3d 230.
State v. Black (1991), 75 Ohio App. 3d 667 -- Variation of reasonable doubt definition stated: "In other words, you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that you have looked at all of the evidence, compared it, considered it, weighed it carefully." Reversed as plain error as reasonable doubt should not be tied to how thoroughly the jury has examined the evidence. Also see State v. Black (1992), 78 Ohio App. 3d 130 (same case on reconsideration); State v. Black (1993), 85 Ohio App. 3d 771 (third round).
State v. McClellan (1994), 93 Ohio App. 3d 315, 325 -- Plain error not found where by oversight instructions on reasonable doubt and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt were not read together.
State v. Crenshaw (1977), 51 Ohio App. 2d 63 -- Reasonable doubt formerly was defined to require an "abiding conviction to a moral certainty." Present definition refers to a "present firm conviction." While use of the former definition is erroneous, it is beneficial to the defendant and, therefore, not prejudicial.
State v. Walker (1981), 2 Ohio App. 3d 483 -- It is plain error to instruct the jury that the defendant bears the burden of proving alibi beyond a reasonable doubt.

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Published by Timothy E. Pierce
Copyright © Franklin County Public Defender and Timothy E. Pierce, 2015
Contents may not be duplicated without express permission.