For 18 years now, I have taken seriously the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I have discussed that standard of proof in this column in connection with the now-infamous murder case in Warrensburg, reminding readers that accusation of a crime is not proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I have known that my application of that standard in cases has been a burr under more than one person’s saddle. And yet, that is the standard of proof in a criminal case. Period.
This past week, I have found out exactly what that phrase, that standard, means to someone who has been violated, but who cannot offer proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
We got a call last weekend from Emily, who told a tale that no parent wants to hear. She was out for dinner, and when she did not expect it, an acquaintance, a young man whom she had dated for a while, burst into the restaurant and began swinging his fists at the man with whom she was eating dinner (I will call him Scott). The management of the restaurant managed to take hold of the situation and escorted the unfortunately inebriated young man from the premises.
That, however, did not end the problem. Without going into detail, the fight eventually continued, and the police were called. Emily, Scott, and Scott’s roommate all discovered the next morning their cars had been vandalized. Someone had broken off the cars’ outside mirrors and had “keyed” Emily’s car on all panels, so badly that the entire car will have to be completely repainted.
We, of course, told her she would have to make a police report, which she did. She also asked for an order of protection.
The order of protection was denied. Nothing in Emily’s story indicated she should fear for her safety, according to the judge who heard the evidence. And the police officer to whom she made the report told her she had little, if any, proof the young man who started the fight had damaged her car. No one had seen him do it, even though the police had found the mirrors of one of the other cars in his car’s back seat. The police officer would ask for charges, she said, but Emily should not expect that the prosecutor would file them.
I was infuriated and outraged. Of course he had done it. Who else would do such a thing on that particular night after such an exhibition? It had to be him!
And then I remembered that phrase: “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Was it reasonable to connect the incidents? Because of the timing of each incident, there was no real connection, other than the mirrors were broken from each car. There were no witnesses. No one was willing to come forward to say that he or she knew what had happened. The perpetrator was certainly not willing to put himself or herself in the position of being convicted of a felony; after all, he or she has the right to remain silent so as not to incriminate him/herself.
And so we are left, quite unsatisfactorily, with the troubling question that many people are forced to ask: When the standard cannot be met, is it better to let a guilty person go free than to convict and imprison someone who is innocent?
Every time I find a defendant not guilty, I think that a victim, sure of the perpetrator’s guilt, is answering that question by vehemently saying, “Absolutely NOT!” This time, I, too, am saying the same thing.
And yet I know that “beyond a reasonable doubt” must always mean just that. As blindly angry as I am right now, I know that to be the truth.
But Emily may have another avenue to ask for restitution for what has happened. You see, the standard of proof in a civil court, such as in small claims court, is a “preponderance of the evidence” — it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the damages. Perhaps, should she ask a civil court to examine the evidence, the justice system will triumph after all. I am hoping.