Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: Stories and Illustrations

How do you explain reasonable doubt to jurors in a criminal trial?

It’s a surprisingly slippery concept, and no matter how you explain it, many jurors will, consciously or unconsciously, believe that, if a person is probably guilty, or most likely guilty, they should find them guilty.

But that’s not how reasonable doubt works

I’ve written before about how to explain reasonable doubt by placing it into context with the other standards of proof in other types of cases in different courtrooms, and that is important. But the most effective way of explaining reasonable doubt (or anything, really) is by telling a story.

What story should you tell?

Any story that feels right, that fits with the theme of your case, and that illustrates the concept of reasonable doubt – I’ve got plenty, and I’ll share a few below. If you have other stories that you have used in trial that you can share, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Because everyone loves stories, especially the kind that help win trials…

The Mouse in the Box

Imagine you have a box. You have caught a cute little mouse, you place him safely inside the box, and you close the lid up tight so the mouse can’t get out. You leave the box in the living room, all safe and cozy in his new home, while you run to the pet store to buy a terrarium so the kids can keep the mouse for a while.

When you get home, you go straight to the box, but the lid is open, and… the mouse is gone! The kids aren’t home from school yet, no one was home when you left the house, but you see the cat, lying on the sofa watching you with a smug, guilty look on his whiskered face. Did the cat eat the mouse?!

It seems likely, given that there is no other possible explanation…

Now, imagine you come home, you go straight to the box, but the lid is open, and… the mouse is gone! But wait! You see a small little mouse-sized hole that has been chewed into one corner of the box, just big enough to allow the mouse to escape.

Did the cat eat the mouse? Maybe… maybe the cat chewed that hole in the box and ate the little guy. But we don’t know that – that little hole in the box that may have allowed the mouse to escape is reasonable doubt, and, if that cat was on trial, we would have to turn him loose and find him not guilty.

Something Ain’t Quite Right with the Sauce

Last Friday night, I took my wife to a nice Italian restaurant for dinner. I ordered the spaghetti and meatballs – my favorite. My wife ordered the ossu buco. When the meal arrived, it looked delicious… we thanked our waiter and dug in!

Well, almost dug in. As I lifted a delicious-looking meatball to my mouth, I caught a whiff of a terrible, awful smell – the meatball was rancid! Embarrassed and not quite sure how to handle the situation, I waved our waiter over to our table, quietly told him that the meatball was rancid, and showed him the offensive bit of meat on my fork.

The waiter took the fork, looked at the meatball, sniffed it, and agreed – this is definitely rancid. He then put it into a napkin, smiled, and said, “I’ll take this. Enjoy the rest of your meal” before walking off.

Now, am I going to ignore the rancid meatball that the waiter has just taken off my plate and eat the rest of the meal as if it never happened?

Well, that’s what the prosecutor wants you to do in this case – ignore the [lying snitch/ cop who was forced to change his lying testimony on cross-examination/ drugs that weigh 3 grams less than what was seized] and just swallow the rest of the meal they are offering you.

Each of those rancid meatballs is a reasonable doubt that should cause you to hesitate to act…


What if you are told that you must have a risky surgical procedure. Your doctor says you must go under the knife, and you need to trust his opinion. But then you discover that the doctor has a drug problem and a criminal charge pending for Medicaid fraud. Would you want a second opinion?

You talk to a second surgeon who also recommends the surgery, but then you discover that he is a drug dealer who is accused of fraud and medical malpractice. Would you want a third opinion? Or would you go under the knife based on their recommendation?

If you would not trust these shady witnesses with the most important decisions in your life, you cannot trust them to find a person guilty of a crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Each of those witnesses that the government has presented to you is a reasonable doubt that should cause you to hesitate to act.

When the Truth is Stranger than Fiction/ Pull a Rabbit Out of the Hat

In the television show Boston Legal, Alan Shore gives attorney Sally Heap advice on her upcoming closing argument in a robbery trial – her client is charged with stealing a wallet, but he claims that he “stole” the wallet by accident because it is identical to his own wallet…

Alan’s advice? Pull a rabbit out of your hat (he actually says, “pull a rabbit out from under your dress”). Tell the jury a story, make it interesting, make it entertaining, and, when they connect with your story, connect the story to your case. The story is your rabbit…

The next day, Sally gives her closing argument:

One day, I was in my kitchen. I think I was about 15. And in came Fred, my big chocolate Lab. And in his mouth was a dead rabbit. The neighbor’s pet rabbit. And I thought “This is it for Fred.” If they find out he killed their adored pet, Animal Control would be down, and –.

So, I took the rabbit. Washed him off in the sink. Pulled out the blow dryer. Got him all white and fluffy looking. And I snuck over to my neighbor’s backyard and I put him back in his cage, hoping they’d think he died of natural causes.

That night my parents came into my room. The neighbor’s pet rabbit had died three days ago, they told me. They buried him in the woods. And some wacko evidently dug him up, washed him off, and put him back in the cage. (A few jurors are smiling).

But I remember thinking to myself the truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often less believable. And that’s what we have here, ladies and gentlemen. The logical version, I suppose, is that my client stole that wallet. The less believable, but quite possibly true account, is that he mistook it for his own.

Nobody, not one of us, can be sure it didn’t happen exactly the way Ramone Valesquez said it did.

That’s reasonable doubt.

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