Under our Constitution, the twin pillars of criminal adjudication are the presumption of innocence and the jury trial. Independent citizen jurors putting the state to its burden are supposed to be the manner in which criminal justice is rendered in our country. Although this phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not itself used in the Constitution, the practical requirement that criminal prosecutions must meet this heavy burden has ancient roots, and the Supreme Court has long held that it is constitutionally compelled in all criminal cases. Indeed, so fundamental is this right that, if a jury is improperly instructed on the burden of proof, a defendant isautomatically entitled to a new trial, without any harmless-error analysis.
But how do we ensure that members of criminal juries properly understand and apply the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard? That question arose in the trial of Cheyenne Moody Davis – and may well have decided his fate. In 2017, Mr. Davis was tried for identity theft and passport fraud. The prosecution alleged that the defendant was not actually Cheyenne Moody Davis, but rather had used the identity of another man with this name to obtain a U.S. passport back in 2006. At trial, the government’s main witness was this other Mr. Davis, who said that he lost his wallet (with identifying information) in St. Thomas in 1997 – which was the same year the defendant obtained a driver’s license in that name. But there were several weaknesses in the state’s case, most notably that it had no theory for who the defendant actually was, no explanation for how he supposedly obtained the lost wallet in 1997, and no explanation for why there were two different Social Security Cards validly issued to a “Cheyenne Moody Davis” in the 1970s. In light of this messy and confusing fact pattern, the defense’s main argument was simply that the state had failed to meet its burden of proof.
Less than three hours into deliberations, the jury submitted a question to the district court, asking: “Can we have the proper legal definition of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’?” The district court had not given any explanation for this standard in the original jury instructions, and this question self-evidently demonstrates that there was at least some confusion or division among the jurors as to its meaning. But shockingly, the district court refused to provide any clarification. Jury deliberations then continued for over two days – longer than the length of the trial itself – before the jury finally returned a guilty verdict.
Mr. Davis appealed, but the Fourth Circuit held that – even in the face of an explicit request from the jury – the district court was not obligated to provide any explanation to the jury on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Mr. Davis therefore filed a cert petition, asking the Supreme Court to resolve a three-way split among the lower courts on this question – the Third, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have held that a reasonable doubt instruction is required in all instances; the Fourth and Seventh Circuits have held that such an instruction is never required; and the Ninth and D.C. Circuits have held that such an instruction if required if the jury asks for clarification.
Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of the cert petition, arguing that juries cannot effectively protect the presumption of innocence unless they are properly informed about the meaning of “reasonable doubt.” Though this standard is well-known to members of the legal profession, both common sense and empirical studies indicate that it is not well-understood or self-evident to the average juror. Even if there are some cases where further instructions could create more confusion than they resolve, that concern necessarily dissipates when the jury itself requests clarification. When a jury that is manifestly confused about the meaning of reasonable doubt renders a conviction, there simply cannot be any confidence that the jury applied the burden of proof mandated by the Constitution.
Our brief also argues that it is especially important for the Court to take this case now, in light of its relation to the diminishing role of the jury trial generally. Though intended to be the cornerstone of criminal adjudication, the jury trial today has been all but replaced by plea bargaining as the presumptive manner in which criminal convictions are obtained – and there is ample reason to doubt whether the bulk of such pleas are truly voluntary. While coercive plea bargaining is a complex problem with no simple solution, defendants should at least have confidence that their jury will properly understand the presumption of innocence and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Otherwise, they will effectively lose the main tool they have to resist the overwhelming pressure that prosecutors can bring to bear when trying to extract a plea.