The Zimmerman Verdict and Reasonable Doubt

07/14/2013 05:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2013
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post

Abe Pafford was one of the attorneys who represented Cory Maye. He posted the passage below on his Facebook page, and I think it's worth re-posting here.

I posted this as a comment, but given that a lot of people are thinking about the Zimmerman case I thought I would post it on my status as well. This was in the context of a suggestion that the Zimmerman verdict shows that jurors take the idea of "reasonable doubt" too seriously, and there should be a national conversation to ensure that jurors do not go overboard in applying the standard in a manner that benefits defendants.

I did not follow the trial as closely, so I do not necessarily have a strong opinion on the result in the Zimmerman case. But being in the trenches on criminal defense and appellate matters on a regular basis, I believe the least of the problems in our criminal justice system is jurors taking the idea of "reasonable doubt" too seriously. Approximately 90% of criminal trials result in a guilty verdict, at least at the federal level, and I believe the conviction rate is similar in most states.

Most jurors start with an overwhelming presumption that the police always tell the truth, and (contrary to jury instructions) most jurors do hold it against the defendant (at least subconsciously) if the defendant does not testify. On top of this, in most criminal cases there is a vast resource disparity in favor of the prosecution, both in terms of the respective skills of the particular attorneys as well as the access to experts, forensic resources, etc. Most judges are former prosecutors, and it is darn near impossible for a prominent member of the defense bar to ascend to the state or federal bench.

All of these factors, and probably more, contribute to the fact that we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Every couple of years seems to bring a new wave of exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted, often in trials where an honest review of the evidence will reveal that the reasonable doubt standard, properly applied, would have resulted in a not guilty verdict.

I can understand being upset with the Zimmerman verdict, and I agree that Zimmerman seems like the type who went looking for trouble (although I do not think that fact necessarily means the verdict was wrong). And I do feel terribly for Trayvon's family. But if you want an accurate sense of the manner in which our criminal justice devalues the lives of young black men, take a look at the population of our prisons, the unrelenting severity of our sentencing practices, and the disgraceful failure of our recent Presidents and most governors to mitigate these impacts through use of the clemency power. Whatever legacy Trayvon may have, I cannot imagine he would want it to be the further weakening of a legal standard that is one of the only protections young black men have when facing prosecution and imprisonment on a scale unheard of in virtually any other country in the world.

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