Supreme Judicial Court Updates Jury Instruction on Reasonable Doubt, and the Result is Morally Certain

Hopefully, everyone who is reading this knows that, in the United States, a criminal defendant must be found not guilty unless the government proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is good, because “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest burden of proof available, and the government must be held to such a high burden before it can deprive a person of life or liberty.

The challenge is explaining to jurors what the term “reasonable doubt” means.  Ever since 1850, Massachusetts jurors sitting on criminal trials have been instructed that reasonable doubt is “a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. … It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.” Although Massachusetts has used this jury instruction since 1850, other federal and state courts have adopted more modern language, including, in many jurisdictions, a jury instruction that replaces the “moral certainty” standard with a jury instruction that says, “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt.”  This newer, “firmly convinced” definition of reasonable doubt increasingly has gained ground throughout the nation.    

In a January 26, 2015 decision captioned Commonwealth v. Russell, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court responded to these developments by updating our 1850 jury instruction in a manner that keeps the “moral certainty” requirement, but further explains the concept of “moral certainty”.  More specifically, jurors in Massachusetts now will be instructed that “[a] charge is proved beyond a reasonable doubt if, after you have compared and considered all of the evidence, you have in your minds an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge is true.  When we refer to moral certainty, we mean the highest degree of certainty in matters relating to human affairs – based solely on the evidence that has been put before you in this case.”

Significantly, in reaching this decision, the Supreme Judicial Court expressly declined to replace the “moral certainty” standard with the more-modern “firmly convinced” standard, because the act of determining whether someone is guilty of a crime requires “proper solemn consideration”  that reflects “the moral consequence of sitting in judgment of one’s peers.”  In other words, the Supreme Judicial Court noted “it would be imprudent to endorse a reasonable doubt instruction that glosses over the moral underpinnings of the jury’s work in a criminal case, and we decline to do so.”    

As a defense attorney who, literally, has recited the “moral certainty” standard to more juries than I can recall, I am gratified that our state’s highest court has kept moral certainty in the definition of reasonable doubt.  A criminal trial is a solemn undertaking that pits governmental power against individual rights, and we are well-served by keeping the notion of moral certainty at the forefront.