Dedicated Georgia Attorneys

Criminal Defense Lawyer

Whether dependent upon direct or circumstantial evidence, the true question in criminal cases is not whether it is possible that the conclusion at which the evidence points may be false, but whether there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the mind and conscience beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The requirement that guilt of a criminal charge be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt dates at least from our early years as a Nation.” The necessity of proof by the state beyond a reasonable doubt constitutional right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.

Georgia statutes also establish the necessity of proof beyond a reasonable doubt before a defendant may be found guilty.It has been held that “the phrases, ‘to a moral and reasonable certainty’ and ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ as applied to the quality of proof in a case, are identical in meaning.” However, in Marion v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the better practice is for the trial judge to omit the phrase “moral and reasonable certainty” from the jury charge.

In Whitt v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court held that it was error for a trial judge to charge a jury that the state is not “required to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond all reasonable doubt, but [is] required to prove [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Emphasis added.)

All elements of a crime as well as every material allegation in the indictment must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in order to justify a conviction.

A reasonable doubt may arise from the presence or lack of evidence as well as from other factors.In the final analysis, the jury must determine whether a reasonable doubt exists, but “[g]uilt beyond a reasonable doubt must be determined solely on admissible evidence of probative value.”

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that the district attorney must prove the case beyond all doubt,nor does it mean proof to a mathematical certainty. In Lavji v. State, the court considered a charge which included the statement that “if ‘you are unable to say with reasonable certainty that he is guilty then you should acquit him.’ ” The court concluded that since the defendant was fully and accurately charged on reasonable doubt, the use of the phrase “reasonable certainty” in the context of the charge did not constitute reversible error.

A number of Georgia cases, in considering the meaning of “a reasonable doubt,” have defined it as (1) doubt for which a juror can give a reason, (2) doubt for which a specific reason can be given, (3) the doubt of a fair-minded, impartial juror,(4) doubt which leaves the mind wavering, unsettled, and unsatisfied, and (5) doubt based on common sense and reason.However, in view of the Cage case hereinafter discussed in this section, and cases based on Cage, the accuracy of these holdings is open to question.

It is not necessary for the court to define reasonable doubt when the jury is charged.Even when there is a proper request, the court’s failure to define the term “reasonable doubt” is not error. However, it has been held that it is error for the court to charge that if the state has proved the material allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant should be found guilty, since such a charge restricts the jury to the state’s evidence. But it has been held that to not be error to instruct a jury that if the defendant’s guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury has a duty to convict. However, more recently the Georgia Supreme Court has “ disapproved an instruction suggesting that the jury has a duty to convict, holding that the better practice is to inform the jurors that they are authorized to convict.”

In Cage v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court found a reasonable-doubt instruction unconstitutional where it defined reasonable doubt as “such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty” and as “an actual substantial doubt,” coupled with a requirement of “moral certainty.”

In the 1994 companion cases of Victor v. Nebraska and Sandoval v. California, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is a requirement of due process in criminal cases. The Victor charge contained the phrases “to a moral certainty,” “strong probabilities of the case,” and “actual and substantial doubt,” to which the defendant objected. In Sandoval, the defendant objected to the following phrases from the charge: “not a mere possible doubt,” “depending on moral evidence,” and “to a moral certainty.” The majority concluded that, looking at the jury instructions as a whole, the use of these phrases did not render the charges unconstitutional. However, the Court noted out that it did not condone the use of the phrase “moral certainty.”

After Victor was decided, the United States Supreme Court summarily vacated the ordering of a new trial in North Carolina v. Bryant, where the state supreme court held jury instructions unconstitutional which charged that “beyond a reasonable doubt” meant (1) “satisfied to a moral certainty of the truth of the charge,” (2) having “an abiding faith to a moral certainty in the defendant’s guilt” or (3) an “honest substantial misgiving generated by the insufficiency of the proof.”

The United States Supreme Court has set out the standards of review and analysis to be used when presented with a challenged “reasonable doubt” instruction. In Estelle v. McGuire,the Court reaffirmed that the standard of review when examining a jury instruction is to inquire “ ‘whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way’ that violates the Constitution.” In Chapman v. California,the Court outlined a “harmless-error” review where reversal is not mandated if it can be shown “beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained.”

However, in Sullivan v. Louisiana,the Court held that where a charge had been given which was “essentially identical to the one held unconstitutional in Cage …,” the harmless-error analysis of Chapman was inapplicable because the premise was absent (the state supreme court had held that the “erroneous instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt”). Here there was no guilty “verdict” within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment because there was no “jury verdict of guilty-beyond-a-reasonable doubt …. [T]he essential connection to a ‘beyond-a-reasonable-doubt’ factual finding cannot be made where the instructional error consists of a misdescription of the burden of proof, which vitiates all the jury’s findings.”

Contact a Paulding County criminal defense lawyer today if facing criminal charges.