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'Reasonable doubt' can hinge on knowing broader context

Back in January 2016, we wrote a post to clarify the importance of the state's burden to provide "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" to obtain a criminal conviction. As that post observed, whether the burden is sufficiently met is a subjective decision made by the jury. It's futile to attempt to second-guess the outcome as an outsider.

Very few people know what really occurred in the course of an alleged crime in Virginia. Evidence might prove that a crime was committed and offer clues as to the party responsible, but proving it is another thing. Experienced criminal defense attorneys appreciate that sometimes framing events in a context that differs from what the prosecution proposes can give jurors what they need to acquit.

This appears to have been in play in a recent case from another state. A jury found a police officer not guilty of misdemeanor fifth-degree assault. Based on the charging documents and the arguments presented by the prosecution at trial, acquittal might have seemed unlikely.

The state attempted to paint a picture of a buff veteran police officer angrily punching a 14-year-old girl in the face after she had spit in his face. The prosecution also presented blurry police-cam video that it said showed the officer striking the girl.

It might be possible to interpret the video that way. However, the defense offered several arguments for acquittal. First, it argued that the so-called punch represented a learned tactic that police use to maintain control of unruly individuals. It also pointed out that a picture of the girl taken within 30 minutes of her being taken into custody showed no evidence of face trauma. Lastly, the defense argued that the force used by the officer was justified under the law.

In the end, it took the jury less than two hours to find the officer not guilty. Clearly, the jury found there was reasonable doubt to believe the prosecution's case.

No one can guarantee the outcome of a criminal case. To assure the best possible outcome, consulting a skilled attorney is always advised.

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