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Judge reading jury instructionsFor over a century, judges in Massachusetts have been strongly encouraged to use the “Webster” instruction on reasonable doubt, written by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw in Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 295 (1850), when explaining the legal concept to jurors in criminal cases.   In fact, “the Webster charge has served as the gold standard against which instructions on reasonable doubt have been measured.”

This week, that gold standard changed when, in Comm. v. Russell, the Supreme Judicial Court announced both a new instruction, and a new requirement that it be used.

The court wrote, “we now exercise our inherent supervisory power to require a uniform instruction on proof beyond a reasonable doubt that uses more modern language, but preserves the power, efficacy, and essence of the Webster charge. … Therefore, going forward, Massachusetts judges sitting on criminal trials are to instruct the jury as follows:

“The burden is on the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charge(s) made against him (her).

“What is proof beyond a reasonable doubt? The term is often used and probably pretty well understood, though it is not easily defined. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all possible doubt, for everything in the lives of human beings is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. A charge is proved beyond a reasonable doubt if, after you have compared and considered all of the evidence, you have in your minds an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge is true. When we refer to moral certainty, we mean the highest degree of certainty possible in matters relating to human affairs — based solely on the evidence that has been put before you in this case.

“I have told you that every person is presumed to be innocent until he or she is proved guilty, and that the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. If you evaluate all the evidence and you still have a reasonable doubt remaining, the defendant is entitled to the benefit of that doubt and must be acquitted.

“It is not enough for the Commonwealth to establish a probability, even a strong probability, that the defendant is more likely to be guilty than not guilty. That is not enough. Instead, the evidence must convince you of the defendant’s guilt to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces your understanding and satisfies your reason and judgment as jurors who are sworn to act conscientiously on the evidence.

“This is what we mean by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

 

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