Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Reasonable doubt

It's been virtually impossible to avoid the news about the verdict in the Michael Jackson sexual molestation trial. I didn't follow the actual trial very closely -- Michael Jackson repulses me, even in his "normal" behavior -- but the ongoing trial news, too, was hard to avoid.

But seeing how I've been hearing a lot of news commentary about the "not guilty" verdict, I thought I'd throw out my thoughts on it.

Without my having followed the trial that closely, I think that the "not guilty" verdict was a sound one. That's because, reading what I've read about the evidence, I can understand how the jury could have had "reasonable doubt" about whether Jackson commited the acts alleged by this kid.

In a criminal trial, the crime must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt." We hear that phrase all the time, but lawyers, judges, and jurors have to pay close attention to how that phrase is defined in the law. I'm sure that the Jackson jurors got a long, formal jury instruction about what "reasonable doubt" means, too. Here's the standard California jury instruction on "reasonable doubt":

"Reasonable doubt is defined as follows: It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge."

So, in light of the extent to which the boy and his mother appeared to have given contradictory statements and had such a history of making claims for monetary gain, I can see how those facts, right there, create some reasonable doubt that what they were alleging was true.

Now, do I think that it's LIKELY that Michael Jackson has molested some kid at some point? Yes, I think it's possible and maybe even probable. But probable isn't the legal standard here. Also, even if you believe some other boy when he said that Jackson did molest him (that youth minister guy) or did not molest him (McCauley Culkin), that may have some bearing on Jackson's propensity to molest, but it doesn't prove what he did or didn't do with the particular kid at issue. He wasn't on trial for those acts in this case.

Anyway, even before the jury came back, I suspected that it'd be a "not guilty" verdict, and not because of Jackson's race or celebrity status. It was because, in light of the legal definition of "reasonable doubt," I saw reasonable doubt when I heard how the evidence was unfolding.

I've watched a few interviews with jurors from the case, and I've been impressed at how calm and neutral they seemed. Yes, some said, Jackson seemed eccentric. Yes, he showed poor judgment. But, they noted, those things aren't crimes. Sleeping with boys -- alone -- is weird, but not criminal. With all the evidence together, did the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the acts alleged? No.

I do have a very different view about the O.J. Simpson trial, but that's a whole other story.


  1. I have no doubt that he is guilty. But I think the sleazy mother was put on trial and not Michael. Even sleazy people deserve justice, and it did not happen. I'm no legal eagle and I will probably never get to sit on a high profile jury - just believe in my intuition.

  2. I guess I was getting at that believing that he's guilty (from all sorts of bizarre stuff that surely sounds like suspicious behavior on his part) is a different matter from PROVING him guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" as that phrase is defined in the law. It really is a very high standard. And as someone who used to do a fair amount of jury trial work, I'm always really impressed when I see jurors working hard to properly apply the legal standard, even if it's not popular. I think it would have been very easy for a jury to take all of the bizarre stuff and find him guilty because of all that, without actually deciding that the evidence established beyond a reasonable doubt that he did these specific acts against this one kid. (THat's one of the many reasons I am still upset about the O.J. trial...I think that jury threw the standards out the window and decided on racial lines, and were encouraged to do so by the defense lawyers.) Oops, I said I wasn't going to go down that road...

  3. Diane,

    Thank you for a well composed and reasoned explanation of this. Although I have questions about Jackson's behavior, I too think that the jury had no choice but to vote not guilty.

    And, like OJ, not guilty does not mean innocent.

    And, I sadly believe that the jury in the OJ trial was bound by the same requirement of reasonable doubt.. but I resent that they voted with very little actual deliberation. But let's not go down that road...

  4. Personally, I think he probably did it, but it could'nt be proved.
    Belief isn't proof and proof is what was needed. If anything, I hope he is able to get some help, because he obviously has some huge problems to work through.

  5. Anonymous6:34 PM

    Most of the members of the jury felt that he is a pedophile BUT, given the evidence, they could not come back with a *guilty* verdict. BTW, I do believe that "beyond a reasonable doubt" applies ONLY in murder and, possibly, manslaughter. It MAY be that it is also the case in capital crimes (such as the pedophile charge) but I can't remember. I do know that in other types of cases it is a "preponderance of the evidence"...meaning if it's 51%, that's good enough.....

    I do agree with Gerrie that even sleazy people deserve justice but a witness has to be credible. The kid was credible, the mother was not. Unfortunately, the jusy had to consider her influence over the son.

    However, as the old saying goes: "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...." Still I gotta wonder about the IQ or intentions of any parent who would allow their child to spend the night with someone who had already been accused.....


  6. Actually, it's "beyond a reasonable doubt" in all criminal cases, because the accused's freedom -- a fundamental constitutional right -- is at stake. The preponderance of evidence standard is for civil cases, where just money (usually) is at stake.

  7. Hey Diane,

    We're just testing you to make sure you aren't sleeping through those continuing ed classes you're taking.