Reasonable Doubt and Moral Elements

Lee, Youngjae | January 1, 2015

The law is axiomatic. In order to convict a person of a crime, every element of the crime with which he is charged must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This Article argues that this fundamental proposition of American criminal law is wrong. Two types of elements are typically found in crime definitions: factual elements and moral elements. Proving factual elements involves answering questions about historical facts—that is, questions about what happened. By contrast, proving moral elements—such as “reckless,” “unjustifiable,” “without consent,” or “cruel”—involves answering questions not only about what happened but also about the evaluative significance of what happened. This Article argues that the beyond a reasonable doubt requirement should not apply to such moral elements for three reasons. First, the beyond a reasonable doubt requirement applied to normative elements compels overly underinclusive interpretations of crime definitions because the standard requires factfinders to acquit where there are reasonable moral disagreements. Second, by, in effect, thus limiting the scope of crime definitions, the requirement undermines the value of using normative terms in crime definitions as a method of guiding citizens to behave as responsible law-abiding citizens. Third, the requirement produces a situation where important normative decisions are delegated to ultimate factfinders, especially the jury, with excessively restrictive instructions as to when they are allowed to act on their moral beliefs. The Article concludes by discussing some implications of these arguments and exploring general features of criminal law that conspire to produce these problems with the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.