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DuPage County Judge's Instruction to Jury on 'Reasonable Doubt' Didn't Violate Due Process Rights of Man Accused of Liquor Theft

In a case involving a man accused of retail theft for stealing nine bottles of liquor, a DuPage County trial judge's decision to tell a jury that it must decide for itself what constitutes reasonable doubt did not violate the accused man's rights, according to an Illinois Appellate Court ruling. The judge's statement, by itself, was insufficient to prove that the jury convicted the man using a standard below the proper "beyond a reasonable doubt."

In a case involving a man accused of retail theft for stealing nine bottles of liquor, a DuPage County trial judge's decision to tell a jury that it must decide for itself what constitutes reasonable doubt did not violate the accused man's rights, according to an Illinois Appellate Court ruling. The judge's statement, by itself, was insufficient to prove that the jury convicted the man using a standard below the proper "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case centered on Bernard Thomas's alleged theft of several bottles of liquor from an Elmhurst Jewel-Osco store in late March 2012. The state charged him with retail theft of property having a value exceeding $300 after the store's staff determined that Thomas' theft included six bottles of $39 vodka and three bottles of $33 cognac.

At Thomas' trial, the judge explained to the jury that Thomas was presumed innocent and they should only find the man guilty if the state proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Thomas committed the alleged crimes. The judge did not give the jury a definition of what "reasonable doubt" meant.

During deliberations, the jury asked the judge what the legal definition of reasonable doubt was. After discussing the topic with the prosecutor and Thomas's attorney, the judge sent a reply telling the jury that it was "for you to determine." The jury returned a verdict of "guilty."

On appeal, Thomas contended that the trial judge's answer, telling the jury to figure out what reasonable doubt was for itself, created the possibility that the jury used the wrong standard for determining the man's guilt and violated his due process rights.

Thomas' appeal proved unsuccessful. The Illinois law is that judges should refrain from instructing juries regarding what constitutes reasonable doubt. An accused person is entitled to a new trial if he or she can prove that the jury found him or her guilty using a less stringent standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt." Thomas, however, had no such evidence in his case. The trial judge's mere statement telling the jury to figure it out for itself was not enough to establish clearly that the jury used a lesser standard to convict Thomas.

Even though the trial judge in Thomas' case did not violate his due process rights, one of the justices hearing the appeal cautioned trial judges from saying too much when faced with such questions. Merely telling juries "it is for you to decide" may possibly threaten the accused person's rights and risk reversal of a conviction, since that language might make a jury believe it had the power "to interpret the term to mean whatever it wants it to mean."

Trial judges have very demanding and complex jobs, in large part because the decisions they make may greatly affect the outcomes that befall people accused of crimes. If you or a loved one has been charged with retail theft or another crime, it is important to retain qualified legal counsel to assist in your defense. Your defense attorney can aggressively present your side of the case and make sure that the judge in your case gives you a fair trial. For the knowledgeable advice and determined representation you need, reach out to the experienced DuPage County criminal defense attorneys at Martin & Kent. Our skilled attorneys can help you guard your rights and put on the most compelling defense possible.

Contact us online or by calling (888) 388-9151 to schedule your confidential initial consultation at no charge.

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