Under Arrest - R is for Reasonable Doubt

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

Welcome back to A-Z. Today's letter R is for reasonable doubt.

Reasonable doubt is a term used in jurisdiction of common law countries. Evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction in most adversarial legal systems. 

We have already talked about evidence, and how hard it is to provide sometimes. 

As a defense lawyer you like to appeal to reasonable doubt as your last resort. In your closing argument you might therefore say something like:

"You can't possibly want to be responsible for convicting an innocent person. All that the prosecution has come up with is circumstantial evidence which is not enough to send my client to prison. You swore to uphold the law, and the law requests that you need proof beyond reasonable doubt - therefore you cannot convict my client."

I had to google and rewatch a lot of episodes (all in the name of research, you're welcome) to find a scene I had in the back of my mind. It is from Boston Legal, Season 3.

Alan Shore defends Renata Hill who is accused of murdering her groom-to-be. It's only fitting that the episode is called "the bride wore blood".

Here are snippets of his final speech, and be warned, Alan is a man of many words, so bear with him:

Would you want a woman deprived of her future husband to spend the rest of her life in prison if there was even the slightest chance that she may be innocent? And there is that chance. The prosecution could not establish beyond all reasonable doubt that nobody else entered that room. They admit the crime scene was contaminated. We know this man had jilted 3 previous fiancées. 

Maybe it’s possible one of them showed up. Or maybe somebody completely different. We’ve heard testimony that there were a lot of people coming and going that day—perhaps an individual slipped unnoticed into the room. Perhaps dressed as a delivery person, amid the hustle and bustle of the corridor, everyone was distracted by their own concerns, as we all are. 

Maybe a woman, a brunette like Renata, quite like Renata. And perhaps this woman attacked Javier with his own scissors, which he grabbed from his bag. Or perhaps this woman was someone from Renata’s past, and it was Renata she attacked in a jealous rage, and Javier got stabbed in the process. Perhaps Renata was the intended victim. 

There were no witnesses to this crime whatsoever. That’s a fact in evidence. And suppose there was another woman who did this? Well, ladies and gentleman, there is such a woman. We have found her, and will now produce her. She’s willing to walk through that door if the District Attorney agrees to show leniency by discussing a plea. I assume you’re willing to do that?  

Never mind. Luckily for you, we’ve been able to compel this woman to come forward, even in the absence of such a deal. Clarence, please bring her in. 

Clarence Bell rises, buttons his jacket and exits. Everyone in the courtroom stares at the double doors in anticipation—everyone except Alan Shore and Renata Hill, who exchange looks with each other. Alan Shore turns back to the double doors, but Renata Hill does not follow his lead. A.D.A. Christopher Palmer turns back to observe the jury; all of them are still staring at the double doors, waiting. 

Alan Shore: Okay, I was kidding. She’s not coming through the door. But she could have. 

A.D.A. Christopher Palmer: Your Honor, this is a trick I saw in a Judd Nelson movie. They also used it on Matlock. 

Alan Shore: Really? I think I saw it on Perry Mason. It’s an old and venerable illusion that has been used to great effect, going all the way back to the turn of the century. And apparently it’s still being used today to great amusement by others, such as Perry, and uh, Judd, and— cues A.D.A. Christopher Palmer 

A.D.A. Christopher Palmer: Matlock. 

Alan Shore: And me. 

Judge Resnick winces. 

Alan Shore: But regardless of the skill with which it is executed, the success of the trick, like any great trick relies most of all on audience participation, on their predisposition to the possibility of it working, the possibility that it could be true. That possibility is why you—all of you—looked at the door. The District Attorney looked at the door. Everyone looked at the door with curiosity, and expectation, and belief—the belief that there is another woman. 

That belief - that is reasonable doubt. 
If you looked at the door, that's reasonable doubt! 

Very clever, isn't it?

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the situation or the position you're in) oftentimes there isn't sufficient evidence, and reasonable doubt may apply. That's how Casey Anthony got away.

It sucks, but it's part of the legal system, whether we like it or not. 

Ally McBeal, Boston Legal and Suits are my favorite legal shows, even though they're silly and ridiculous at times and very unrealistic, too. Which ones are yours?

Thank you for reading. Enjoy your Easter Weekend and please be back on Monday for the letter S!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


  1. ugh casey anthony.

    as for procedural courtroom dramas, i love "Law and Order UK", Matlock, Perry Mason and the first season of The Good Wife.
    p.s. just tweeted your post :)

    Joy at The Joyous Living

  2. Wow, James Spader has gotten old. (Looking at the pic at the bottom and comparing to his current show.)

    I have never understood reasonable doubt. My head just can't get around it.

  3. I haven't watched any of these shows as I stopped watching TV mostly - I'd rather be crafting. I may have to see if they are on Netflix though now that I can stream it while I craft. I love those kind of courtroom scenes! I would have looked at the door!

    Janet’s Smiles


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