In a criminal trial, “no person shall be made to suffer the onus of a criminal conviction except upon sufficient proof— defined as evidence necessary to convince a trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of every element of the offense.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 316 (1979). This standard of proof is “indispensable” to our criminal justice system and preserves three distinct interests. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). First, it protects the defendant’s interest in being free from unjustified loss of liberty and the stigmatization that results from conviction. Id. at 363. Second, it engenders community confidence in the administration of justice by giving “concrete substance” to the presumption of innocence. Id. at 363–64. Third, it ensures “that the moral force of the criminal law [is not] diluted by a standard of proof that leaves people in doubt whether innocent men are being condemned.” Id. at 364. Thus, for a jury to convict a defendant under this high burden\ of proof, the jury must “reach a subjective state of near certitude of the guilt of the accused.” Jackson, 443 U.S. at 315 (emphasis added).
During closing argument, the prosecutor compared the reasonable doubt standard to the confidence one needs to “hav[e] a meal” or “travel to . . . court”—without worrying about the “possib[ility]” that one will get sick or end up in an accident. The panel held that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by trivializing the reasonable doubt standard and, as a result, caused the defendant substantial prejudice. The panel wrote that the prosecutor’s comments regarding the government’s burden of proof diverged significantly from what is required at trial, and was troubled by the suggestion that reasonable doubt can be compared to an “everyday” experience. The panel was not convinced that the district court’s providing the correct instruction and admonishing the jury earlier during closing argument sufficiently neutralized the prejudice. The panel did not believe that the evidence demonstrating the defendant’s knowledge of the drugs was so overwhelming that the prosecutor’s misstatements were harmless.
Full case: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. ALFRED VELAZQUEZ, http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/06/23/19-50099.pdf
Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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