Death Penalty Standard Should Be Beyond All Doubt

The Chicago Tribune today in an editorial supports a pending bill changing the burden of proof in death penalty cases to beyond all doubt from beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Illinois House is considering legislation that would establish a higher burden of proof in capital case sentencing. Judges and jurors in criminal trials would still apply the time-tested standard of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." But the standard to impose a death sentence would be even higher. Under the legislation, the court would tell jurors that they may impose a death sentence "if the jury unanimously determines that the evidence leaves no doubt respecting the defendant's guilt." If jurors had any residual, or lingering, doubts, they would impose a sentence of life in prison.

Given the deeply troubling experience in Illinois, it should be easy for supporters and opponents of capital punishment to agree on this: When the state is going to impose the ultimate, irreversible punishment, there should be no doubt that the person paying for the crime is the one who committed it.

And in Texas, S.B. 60 has passed it's first house vote. It would add a third option for juries in death cases - life without the possibility of parole.

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  • It would produce less litigation, and have almost indistinguishable effects, just to abolish the death penalty altogether.

    To me "beyond a reasonal doubt" means just that. Now to change the wording is missing the point the definition has been ignored by judges and prosecuters! We live in a world where "critical" no longer means critical, "Very critical" now means critical.

    Why just the death penalty? Why not make this effective across the board? Just think about how good we could all feel if every conviction, every tort claim, and every domestic dispute had to be proven beyond all doubt. Never again would an innocent man go to jail. Never again would a company be bankrupted for something it had nothing to do with. Never again would a husband go to jail just because his wife said he raped her around. Every conviction and every judgement would be 100 percent certified correct and proper on all counts. Of course, if we did this, never again would a lawyer be able to fund his new house and $100,000 Mercedes S-class luxobarge with just the threat of a class-action suit, but I think we could all live with that, couldn't we?

    Re: Death Penalty Standard Should Be Beyond All Do (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jlvngstn on Wed Mar 16, 2005 at 02:32:07 PM EST
    And of the exonerated by the innocence project, which would not have been considered "beyond all doubt" considering that many had confessions, eyewitness testimony and physical evidence (hairs etc)? Beyond all doubt is ridiculous in my opinion because based on the "evidence" in many of the exonerated cases, many of them would have been considered guilty "beyond all doubt".

    To me "beyond a reasonal doubt" means just that. Now to change the wording is missing the point the definition has been ignored by judges and prosecuters!
    "Beyond a reasonable doubt" has never meant "beyond all doubt".

    Regarding "Beyond a reasonable doubt": Who defines what is reasonable? I imagine that, for any given set of circumstances, otherwise "reasonable" people could differ on what "reasonable doubt" would be. Who gets to decide?

    "Beyond all doubt" what a wonderful but utopian ideal. Human justice will never be infallible, therefore there cannot be a justice system that kills. It is not a matter of guilt or innocence, the death penalty is barbaric and a rethoric that only feeds political propaganda at the taxpayers' expense to strengthen the prison business and a strategy of fear that is neither fair nor democratic.

    "beyond ALL doubt"... Are you absolutely positive that little green men didn't kill Nicole Simson? How can you have no doubt? Unless you actually see the crime, isn't there ALWAYS a possibility that someone is lying, some evidence has been tampered with or some tidbit of information that might indicate innocense has been left out?

    Re: Death Penalty Standard Should Be Beyond All Do (none / 0) (#10)
    by John Mann on Wed Mar 16, 2005 at 05:42:51 PM EST
    There might be plenty of cases where there is no doubt at all: a murder could be filmed or taped and the murderer could be heard saying that he is doing it and why. It's ridiculous to say that there are no cases where there is no doubt. So what? The death penalty is still wrong in a civilized society. And for the misanthropes who want the most severe punishments handed down to murderers, why isn't absolute life enough of a sentence?

    Re: Death Penalty Standard Should Be Beyond All Do (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jlvngstn on Wed Mar 16, 2005 at 07:13:22 PM EST
    Again, of those exonerated, which would have been spared according to this new standard? Seems to me it is new wording to make politicians feel good but I see nothing that defines beyond all doubt.

    Dang... this might lead to the government killing fewer people. Can't have that, we've gotta keep up with the Joneses, keep our body count high, in the name of Freedom. After all, who better to emulate than great places like China and Russia.

    There is a very real danger that the "beyond all doubt" jury instruction could be manipulated in the penalty phase of a capital trial by the prosecutor as an automatic death jury instruction. (Somewhat similar to the Texas "special issues" jury instruction, which directs the jury to impose a death sentence after answering "yes" to three questions.) The prosecutor could confuse the jurors by arguing that the beyond all doubt instruction is a sufficient gateway by itself to impose death. How would this jury instruction interact with the jury's obligation to determine whether the prosecution proved the existence of at least one aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt before considering eligiblity for the death penalty? There is also no indication of how this jury instruction would interact with the jury's responsibility to select the appropriate penalty when weighing aggravating and mitigating evidence. There is also no indication of how this jury instruction would interact with the jury's ability to NOT impose the death penalty regardless of the evidence. Anyone who has done capital cases knows that, in many cases, the real battle is fought in the penalty phase of trial when the jury determines whether the defendant should be put to death. The comments to this post illustrate the harms of the beyond all doubt penalty phase instruction. Many of those who posted above simply assume that the death penalty is an automatic consequence after a first-degree murder is proven beyond all doubt. The death penalty cannot be fixed. It must be abolished. Tinkering with penalty phase jury instructions does nothing. (With that said, they should pass the law. Make the prosecutor shoulder more evidentiary burdens in the penalty phase. Besides, such a law is necessary to check the United States Supreme Court who, apparently delusional at the time, ruled that residual doubt is not a constitutionally relevant mitigating circumstance in a capital sentencing hearing. See Franklin v. Lynaugh. On the contrary, statistical evidence indicates that residual doubt is often considered by the jury as the most powerful evidence in selecting a penalty less than death.) This law does nothing to alleviate guilt phase and penalty phase errors in capital cases. Jury instructions are only one of several things wrong with death cases.

    Why just the death penalty? Why not make this effective across the board? I know you're being facetious, but there is, in fact, a good, common-sense reason for holding the death penalty to the higher standard: the death penalty, by definition, cannot be undone. If a person is sentenced to life without parole and later exonerated, we can let him/her out and even provide some compensation for the time spent behind bars. You can't totally reverse a wrongful imprisonment, but you can at least make up for it somewhat. That's obviously impossible if the wrongfully-convicted person is executed. As for the argument that this would be tantamount to abolition, that's almost, but not quite, correct. In most cases a death sentence would probably require a confession in open court. Even a signed or videotaped confession wouldn't remove all doubt because it might have been coerced. Death sentences would therefore be effectively limited to the few who, like Gary Gilmore, actually want to be executed for their crimes. It may be extreme, but as long as we as a society insist on imposing the death penalty on such a broad range of criminals, it's the only way to avoid executing the innocent.

    Of course, you realize that by supporting this “beyond a doubt” standard you play right into the hands of people who think that the death penalty is human and good. Indeed, you also play into the hands of people who think that the characteristics of the defendant (e.g. retarded, young, old, or a member of a suspect class) are irrelevant. Now, all you gotta do is convince a jury that there isn’t a “credible” doubt.