The Reasonable Alternative Hypothesis Defense


Before the 1991 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case of Geesa v. State, Texas criminal juries did not have to be given a definition of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” and Texas appellate courts used the reasonable-alternative-hypothesis standard to judge the legal sufficiency of evidence in circumstantial-evidence cases: the appellate court had to find that every other reasonable hypothesis raised by the evidence was negated, save and except that establishing the guilt of the defendant, if the conviction was to be affirmed in a circumstantial evidence case.

In Geesa the court rejected other-reasonable-hypothesis analysis, and mandated a definition of beyond a reasonable doubt:

A “reasonable doubt” is a doubt based on reason and common sense after a careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence in the case. It is the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his own affairs.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, must be proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs.

In 2000, the Court of Criminal Appeals held in Paulson that it was not necessary to define for a jury “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” This upset some criminal-defense lawyers, because they liked the “hesitate in the most important affairs” language.

At the same time, though, Paulson took “common sense”—the prosecution’s darling—out of the jury charge, and created an opportunity for us to help jurors realize their own definitions for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Most jurors haven’t given much thought to the question of reasonable doubt, but they all think they’re reasonable people (and so are they all . . .). “A doubt held by a reasonable person” is, I have found, a definition that resonates with them.

But that by itself doesn’t get us very far. What’s a doubt? A doubt is an uncertainty. Unanswered questions are doubts. Unresolved issues are doubts. Mysteries are doubts. Feelings that things just aren’t right are—even though not “based on reason and common sense”—doubts. There are enough reasonable ways of talking about reasonable doubt that you can find one to fit the story of your case.

Which brings us back to the Reasonable Alternative Hypothesis. While Geesa eliminated the Reasonable-Alternative-Hypothesis test for appellate review of legal sufficiency, it didn’t say anything about it as a test to be applied by juries. And that test is something that juries can understand instantly. It gives them something to latch onto, a black-and-white question to ask: Is there another reasonable explanation, other than guilt, for the testimony we’ve heard? If so, we must acquit.

The Reasonable Alternative Hypothesis test is a job for the ape brain. In the defense of an appropriate case, your story is a single alternative explanation. Open jurors’ minds to that story by surprising them—by showing them that some part of the State’s case is not what the State would have had them believe. And tell them the story. Again. And again. And again.

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One response to “The Reasonable Alternative Hypothesis Defense”

  1. The instruction on how to use circumstantial evidence in California is one of my favorites. Essentially before you reach any inference from circumstantial evidence that points toward guilty, you must be convinced that it is the only reasonable inference from that piece of evidence. It is basically the alternative hypothesis test except that it is not limited to the ultimate issue of guilt, it applies to anything a DA is asking a jury to infer from circumstantial evidence. It is also a big incentive to characterize anything possible as circumstantial rather than direct evidence.

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