To be convicted of a crime, a person must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Indeed, “reasonable doubt” is one of the hallmarks of our modern criminal justice system. It’s typically understood as a legal rule intended to help determine the facts of a specific case and protect the accused.
But what if everything we think we know about “reasonable doubt” is wrong? What if its original purpose was actually to shield the souls of judges and juries from eternal damnation? What if it was conceived, not as a tool of the secular law, but as a moral concept steeped in a distinct theological tradition of the Middle Ages and Christendom? A tradition that was preoccupied not with facts, but with the spilling of blood?
Our guest for this episode makes this exact argument. Dr. James Whitman has taught at Yale Law School since 1994 and currently serves as the Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including his award-winning work honoured by the American Bar Association, The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial.
00:00 - Introduction
03:45 - Defining reasonable doubt (or not)
07:50 - The theology of blood
12:00 - What an "ordeal"!
17:30 - Fourth Lateran Council bans blood-shedding by priests
21:30 - Emergence of trial by jury
23:20 - Got doubt? Better not act
27:50 - Court testimony: the Middle Ages' risky business
35:00 - "It is the law that condemns and not I"
36:40 - Reasonable doubt: fact finding or moral comfort formula?
40:00 - John Adams echoes Pope Innocent III
42:30 - Things get fuzzy as public morality fades
46:20 - Presumption of innocence vs. presumption of mercy
49:35 - Conclusion
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Dr. James Whitman (biography)
Dr. James Whitman, “The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial” (2008)
Catholic Encyclopedia, “Fourth Lateran Council”
History.com, “Why John Adams Defended British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials”
Magna Carta (English translation)
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Please note that this podcast has been edited for length and clarity.