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Ruling defines ‘reasonable doubt’

Top court gives Utah judges guidelines in introducing juries

SHARE Ruling defines ‘reasonable doubt’

A ruling issued this past week by the Utah Supreme Court cleared up some constitutional confusion on a trial judge's choice of words when giving jury instructions. It also brought Utah closer in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In a 20-page ruling that debated how a judge can explain to a jury that someone is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the Utah Supreme Court abandoned a prior ruling that limited what language judges can use in jury instructions.

The high court opted, instead, to follow a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows judges leeway in the language they use.

"The Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used in advising the jury of the government's burden of proof," the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Victor vs. Nebraska, adding, however, that the language must "correctly convey" the concept of reasonable doubt.

A Utah man, convicted by a jury in 2002 on two counts of sexual assault, challenged the words used by a trial judge to instruct his jury. German Cruz Reyes claimed his constitutional rights were violated because 3rd District Judge William Berrett's use of the phrase "doubt which is merely possible" was not clear in indicating that it was entirely the state's burden to prove Reyes guilty.

Reyes was convicted by a jury of raping an 18-year-old woman outside a Salt Lake night club in November 2002. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms of 15 years to life for the crime.

Before the ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals had overturned Reyes' conviction, noting the judge's instruction violated the state Supreme Court's older, more strict standards.

In the unanimous decision, Justice Ronald Nehring noted that for years courts across the nation have struggled to pin down "reasonable doubt."

"The nagging sense that the law can and should 'do better' than merely instruct jurors that they must find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt accounts for a long quest to formulate a clearer, more concise and more understandable reasonable doubt jury instruction," Nehring wrote, adding the Utah Supreme Court has been a "critic of reasonable doubt instructions."

In the ruling, the justices announced the creation of a "safe harbor" reasonable doubt instruction as a suggested route. Nehring noted the language was advocated by U.S. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as "clear, straightforward and accurate." State justices also noted other language could be used as long as it clearly outlined the state's burden of proof.

"All the trial judges will give this instruction, why would they not?" said Deputy Attorney General Fred Voros, who appealed the Reyes case.

Voros said the ruling eliminates constitutional confusion and has brought Utah in line with the U.S. Supreme Court. He also said the new "safe harbor" instruction is something both prosecutors and defense attorneys will be comfortable with.

As for Reyes himself, the high court overturned the court of appeals decision and upheld Reyes' conviction. No word on whether Reyes will challenge the decision further.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com