Conrad Murray Trial

4 11 2011

The “jury is out” in the Conrad Murray case.  They will likely return a verdict by the end of today or Monday. 

In a criminal case, the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  We wrote on this subject previously.  In June, we explained how the Casey Anthony case was a perfect example of the prosecution failing to meet its burden due to a lack of evidence.  In the Casey Anthony case, she was charged with FIRST DEGREE murder.  Conrad Murray on the other hand is charged with INVOLUNTARY manslaughter.  These two charges are very different, and the evidence required is thus very different.

It is easy to confuse the evidence required with the burden of proof.  To prove its case against Conrad Murray, the prosecution must show that Dr. Murray caused Michael Jackson’s death by committing a crime that posed a high risk of death or great bodily injury because of the way in which it was committed, or that Dr. Murray committed a lawful act, but acted with criminal negligence.  The prosecution must point to specific acts which meet those requirements, and must prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.

In Casey Anthony’s case, the prosecution had to show intent to kill, not just criminal negligence.

So, did the prosecution here prove its case?  Did Dr. Murray act with criminal negligence?

Most of the prosecution’s closing involved emotions, and not facts demonstrating criminal negligence.  In fact, the prosecution even said that they do not need to point to facts since the Defendant’s version would still mean that he “should be held responsible.”  The prosecution needed to point to actual criminal negligence on the part of the defense, and explain why those acts rise to the level of criminal negligence.  He had those facts, but only glossed over those points in favor of the emotional arguments and the actions Dr. Murray allegedly took out of concern for himself.

Here are facts that the prosecution argued which could give rise to criminal negligence (keep in mind, I have only read the closing argument and not all of the testimony during the trial):

  1. Dr. Murray knew that Michael Jackson liked to administer his own Propofol and should never have left Michael Jackson in a room full of drugs since it was foreseeable that Michael Jackson might give himself drugs that would kill him.
  2. Propofol should never be given in a bedroom.

In order for the prosecution to win, the prosecution either had to focus on those two points and point to the evidence proving one of those, which they didn’t, or has to hope that the emotional argument persuades the jury.  We will soon see.

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What Is Reasonable Doubt?

5 10 2011

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – if you don’t know the phrase from school, you know it from TV crime shows, along with another important one – Innocent Until Proven Guilty. You could easily repeat those phrases back to me, and you could probably tell me a little bit about what they mean. But how well do you understand them? This is an important question, because, while legal scholars have written countless articles and books about the burden of proof in a criminal case, it is ordinary Americans who apply these concepts in courtrooms across the country every day.

In order to find a criminal defendant guilty, you must determine that his guilt was established at trial “beyond a reasonable doubt.” No matter what the defendant is accused of, he is innocent until his guilt is established to that degree, and it is each juror’s responsibility to view the defendant as innocent until he is proven guilty even if that takes a great effort. The burden of proof in a criminal case is very high, and it is designed so that it is more likely for a jury to find a guilty person innocent than an innocent person guilty. A criminal defendant has his or her freedom at stake, and a conviction should not be taken lightly.

In civil cases, as opposed to criminal cases, jurors use lower standards of proof – proof by a “Preponderance of the Evidence” or proof by “Clear and Convincing Evidence.” There is a preponderance of the evidence where one side has more evidence in its favor than the other one does, so that the scales tip slightly to one side. Clear and convincing evidence is present where the evidence establishes a high probability that something is true. Beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, requires that the evidence prove more than a high probability of guilt.

Even if you think the defendant committed the crime charged, you may not be able to find him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If, in light of all the evidence, there is a reasonable alternative explanation, even if that reasonable explanation is much less likely than guilt, you have reasonable doubt and the defendant is not guilty.

But how do you decide if your doubt is reasonable? The certainty required for conviction is often described as a “moral certainty” that the defendant is guilty. This moral certainty must exist in every juror, and it is a subjective test, so each juror must make an individual decision as to whether he or she has reasonable doubt. Although the jury deliberates together, the verdict is not a group decision, and each juror has a duty to vote in accordance with his or her own belief as to the existence or absence of reasonable doubt.

Juries often confuse this analysis, simply because it doesn’t come naturally. Presented with a crime, a jury’s natural inclination is to determine what happened, and punish the person responsible. They often become mired in details when, in a proper, beyond a reasonable doubt analysis, the case would immediately fail.

Many of us have lost sight of the seriousness of a criminal conviction and the extent to which all of our rights depend on the high burden of proof in a criminal trial. Our legal system is designed so that the ultimate decision in a criminal case rests on the shoulders of twelve impartial jurors, not on the shoulders of law enforcement, defense attorneys, prosecutors, or victims. It is not the jury’s job to ensure that a criminal doesn’t end up back on the streets, and it is not the jury’s job to avenge or comfort a victim or a victim’s family. It is the jury’s job to ensure that a person who might not be guilty is never convicted.