The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial

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Overview

To be convicted of a crime in the United States, a person must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what is reasonable doubt? Even sophisticated legal experts find this fundamental doctrine difficult to explain. In this accessible book, James Q. Whitman digs deep into the history of the law and discovers that we have lost sight of the original purpose of “reasonable doubt.” It was not originally a legal rule at all, he shows, but a theological one.

The rule as we understand it today is intended to protect the accused. But Whitman traces its history back through centuries of Christian theology and common-law history to reveal that the original concern was to protect the souls of jurors. In Christian tradition, a person who experienced doubt yet convicted an innocent defendant was guilty of a mortal sin. Jurors fearful for their own souls were reassured that they were safe, as long as their doubts were not “reasonable.” Today, the old rule of reasonable doubt survives, but it has been turned to different purposes. The result is confusion for jurors, and a serious moral challenge for our system of justice.

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Editorial Reviews

M. Cathleen Kaveny
“Whitman’s work on reasonable doubt is of immense importance both to the academic and to the practical realm.”—M. Cathleen Kaveny, University of Notre Dame Law School
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Product Details

Meet the Author

James Q. Whitman is Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law, Yale University, and author of the award-winning book Harsh Justice. He lives in New Haven.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     vii
Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction     1
Of Factual Proof and Moral Comfort     9
The Christian Judge and the Taint of Blood: The Theology of Killing in War and Law     27
The Decline of the Judicial Ordeal: From God as Witness to Man as Witness     51
Salvation for the Judge, Damnation for the Witnesses: The Continent     91
Salvation for the Judge, Damnation for the Jury: England     125
The Crises of the Seventeenth Century     159
The Eighteenth Century: The Rule Emerges     185
Conclusion     201
List of Abbreviations     213
Notes     215
Index     271
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