State Supreme Court to Review Reasonable Doubt Metaphors

Judges often use analogies to help jurors understand legal concepts. But incorrect explanations can violate a defendant’s rights. The Colorado Supreme Court is reviewing two appeals involving metaphors that explain reasonable doubt.

Dream House

In this trial of a defendant convicted of possessing contraband, the judge used an analogy to try to explain reasonable doubt to potential jurors. He described a family who found a home with a crack in the foundation from the floor to the ceiling. The judge compared this structurally significant crack to reasonable doubt because it is something that someone can kind of touch or feel an inference that a person may be able to draw.

The defendant was sentenced to four years imprisonment. He appealed and claimed that the judge’s comparison lowered the prosecution’s burden of proof and raised the criminal defense bar for reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The state Supreme Court will decide whether the judge’s analogy lowered the burden of proof. If the Court finds that the defendant’s rights were violated, it will determine whether other factors in the trial reduced harm from the judge’s instruction.

Birthday

This case involves a judge’s comments early in the jury selection process for the trial of a defendant convicted of pandering of a child and tampering with a witness or victim.

The judge said that reasonable doubt is hard to define and that the law is inadequate. He illustrated this point by asking the potential juror how he knew his birth date.

The juror responded that the date was on his birth certificate and later said that he would rely on the date his parents told him. The judge responded that clerical errors could be made on birth certificates and that his mother was unlikely thinking of the date when he was born. The judge then said that if the potential juror still relied on that birthdate, then reasonable doubt was not created.

The judge responded to another potential juror’s question on why the defendant was not tried for child pornography. He said that a trial occurs only when there is evidence to support the charges. Speaking to a third potential juror, the judge said that a defendant is innocent if they did not do anything.

Defendant appealed and argued the court’s comments lowered the burden of proof. The birthday example trivialized the prosecution’s burden after the judge criticized the legal definition of reasonable doubt.

The defense argued that the other comments suggested there was some evidence against the defendant. A defendant who did not do anything analogy minimized the presumption of innocence.

Attorneys can help assure fair trials. They can protect your rights.

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