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Victor v. Nebraska

    Brief Fact Summary. The constitutionality of two jury instructions defining “reasonable doubt” in two cases was at issue.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “The Due Process Clause requires the government to prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and trial courts must avoid defining reasonable doubt so as to lead the jury to convict on a lesser showing than due process requires. In these cases, [the court] conclude[d] that, ‘taken as a whole, the instructions correctly conveyed the concept of reasonable doubt to the jury.’ ”

    Facts. This case concerns two separation actions. The Petitioner in the first, Sandoval (the “Petitioner”) shot three men, two of them fatally during a gang-related shooting. About two weeks after the shooting, the Petitioner killed an individual who gave the police information about the initial shootings. The Petitioner also killed the individual’s wife. The Petitioner was convicted on four counts of first degree murder. The Petitioner was sentenced to death for the murder of the wife and life in prison for the murder of the other three individuals. The California Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and the sentences.

    The jury was given the following instruction about reasonable doubt: “Reasonable doubt is defined as follows: it is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, 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, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.” The California Supreme Court found that the reasonable doubt portion of the instruction was appropriate.

    Petitioner II, Victor (“Petitioner II”), murdered an eighty two year old woman. Petitioner II was convicted of first degree murder. He was sentenced to death and the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. During the jury instructions, the judge stated “[t]he burden is always on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the material elements of the crime charged, and this burden never shifts.” The charge continued: “Reasonable doubt’ is such a doubt as would cause a reasonable and prudent person, in one of the graver and more important transactions of life, to pause and hesitate before taking the represented facts as true and relying and acting thereon. It is such a doubt as will not permit you, after full, fair, and impartial consideration of all the evidence, to have an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the guilt of the accused. At the same time, absolute or mathematical certainty is not required.

    You may be convinced of the truth of a fact beyond a reasonable doubt and yet be fully aware that possibly you may be mistaken. You may find an accused guilty upon the strong probabilities of the case, provided such probabilities are strong enough to exclude any doubt of his guilt that is reasonable. A reasonable doubt is an actual and substantial doubt arising from the evidence, from the facts or circumstances shown by the evidence, or from the lack of evidence on the part of the state, as distinguished from a doubt arising from mere possibility, from bare imagination, or from fanciful conjecture.”

    Issue. “[W]hether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instructions to allow conviction based on proof insufficient to meet the [Winship] standard[?]”

    Held. “[S]o long as the court instructs the jury on the necessity that the defendant’s guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used in advising the jury of the government’s burden of proof. Rather, ‘taken as a whole, the instructions [must] correctly conve[y] the concept of reasonable doubt to the jury.’ ”

    The Petitioner’s “primary objection is to the use of the phrases ‘moral evidence’ and ‘moral certainty’ in the instruction.  The majority observed “the instruction itself gives a definition of the phrase. The jury was told that ‘everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt’ – in other words, that absolute certainty is unattainable in matters relating to human affairs. Moral evidence, in this sentence, can only mean empirical evidence offered to prove such matters – the proof introduced at trial.” Also, that subsequent instructions given by the judge reinforce this instruction. These other instructions “correctly pointed the jurors’ attention to the facts of the case before them, not (as [the Petitioner] contends) the ethics or morality of [the Petitioner’s] criminal acts.” Accordingly, the reference to moral evidence is unproblematic.

    The majority was “more concerned with [the Petitioner’s] argument that the phrase ‘moral certainty’ has lost its historical meaning, and that a modern jury would understand it to allow conviction on proof that does not meet the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.” Further, “[a]lthough, in this respect, moral certainty is ambiguous in the abstract, the rest of the instruction given in [the Petitioner’s] case lends content to the phrase.” “As used in this instruction, therefore, [the majority was] satisfied that the reference to moral certainty, in conjunction with the abiding conviction language, ‘impress[ed] upon the fact finder the need to reach a subjective state of near certitude of the guilt of the accused.’ ”

    The majority also observed “[w]e do not think it reasonably likely that the jury understood the words moral certainty either as suggesting a standard of proof lower than due process requires or as allowing conviction on factors other than the government’s proof.” Nonetheless, the court did not condone the use of the phrase because the common meaning of the phrase “moral certainty” has changed since it was initially used many years ago.

    Petitioner II’s main argument was that “equating a reasonable doubt with a ‘substantial doubt’ overstated the degree of doubt necessary for acquittal.” The majority observed that although the “construction is somewhat problematic”, “[a]ny ambiguity, however, is removed by reading the phrase in the context of the sentence in which it appears: A reasonable doubt is an actual and substantial doubt . . . as distinguished from a doubt arising from mere possibility, from bare imagination, or from fanciful conjecture.”

    As to the moral certainty portion of Petitioner II’s instruction, the majority observed “[t]here is accordingly no reasonable likelihood that the jurors understood the reference to moral certainty to allow conviction on a standard insufficient to satisfy [Winship], or to allow conviction on factors other than the government’s proof.”
    Further “[w]hile it is true that [the challenged instruction] used the words “probabilities” and “strong probabilities,” yet it emphasized the fact that those probabilities must be so strong as to exclude any reasonable doubt, and that is unquestionably the law”

    Discussion. This case provides an interesting example of how the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is construed by the courts.


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