Beyond Reasonable Doubt

The differing standards of proof for criminal and civil cases is well known.

While civil cases require a preponderance or balance of probabilities, criminal cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. How though does “beyond reasonable doubt” translate? No doubt that reasonableness and doubt are in the eye of the beholder—or in our justice system in the eye of a juror (or judge).

This is why, over the past year, cities such as Baltimore, St. Anthony, Ferguson, New York City and Charleston paid over $20 million dollars [$3.0 million (Castile), $6.5 million (Scott), $5.9 million (Garner), $1.5 million (Brown), $6.4 million (Gray] in settlements with families of black men who died when their police officers used lethal force under doubtful circumstances. Not one officer in any of these high profile cases was convicted of a crime (in one a police officer plead guilty to a lesser charge) let alone manslaughter. Facing the lower legal standards of proof for a civil lawsuit, these cities settled before going to trial.

In a single case—a specific circumstance, the standard of proof will depend on what is being determined regarding culpability.  What though is the “standard of proof” for a body of evidence—for multiple cases, all with specific and unique circumstances but all sharing a common denominator of potential prejudice and or racism?

Clearly, the threshold of preponderance or balance of probabilities has been met–$20 million is a concession to that standard of proof. The question that remains: Is it beyond a reasonable doubt that Black Lives don’t matter?

Here we come to the eye of the beholder. For people of color and for many others the preponderance of one after another police killing and officer acquittals in the deaths of black men are ample evidence that Black Lives don’t matter has met the standard of beyond reasonable doubt.

It is not enough to grant civilly a pay out to families—to admit culpability at the level of probabilities—we have to encourage that our police officers apply the standard of beyond reasonable doubt when confronting any situation, but in particular when facing a question of their own safety and use of force when a suspect who is of color is involved.

Education and empathy are critical to the needed social discourse on color and prejudice-racism in America. We all must confront our own prejudices and overcome both reasonableness and doubt to move beyond the racial divides that fissure our country and deny the dream of Martin Luther King.


P.S. Please consider enrolling in the summer film class “ Black Lives Matter” or read either Ta Nehisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me or Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. We will be discussing the films: Loving, Hidden Figures, I am Not Your Negro, Fences and more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *