The Origins of Reasonable Doubt


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Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial

James Q. Whitman

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To be convicted of a crime in the United States, a person must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what is reasonable doubt? Even sophisticated legal experts find this fundamental doctrine difficult to explain. In this accessible book, James Q. Whitman digs deep into the history of the law and discovers that we have lost sight of the original purpose of “reasonable doubt.” It was not originally a legal rule at all, he shows, but a theological one.


The rule as we understand it today is intended to protect the accused. But Whitman traces its history back through centuries of Christian theology and common-law history to reveal that the original concern was to protect the souls of jurors. In Christian tradition, a person who experienced doubt yet convicted an innocent defendant was guilty of a mortal sin. Jurors fearful for their own souls were reassured that they were safe, as long as their doubts were not “reasonable.” Today, the old rule of reasonable doubt survives, but it has been turned to different purposes. The result is confusion for jurors, and a serious moral challenge for our system of justice.


James Q. Whitman is Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law, Yale University, and author of the award-winning book Harsh Justice. He lives in New York City, NY.

"Engaging and illuminating."—Aziz Huq, New York Law Journal

"Whitman's argument in The Origins of Reasonable Doubt relies on detailed research, but what makes the book fascinating is that its historical thesis goes beyond the facts to produce a bold imaginative reconstruction of intellectual causes and effects. . . . This exciting volume demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the history of law is too important and too interesting to remain the exclusive province of specialists in the field."—Shalom Carmy, First Things

"Whitman draws on the literature of medieval theology, the developmental history of common law, and the history of European legal systems. The book illustrates how unconventional materials can be mined to illuminate problems with contemporary legal procedures, and supports Gordon Tullock's argument the modern law becomes confusing, inefficient, and sometimes even incoherent when it cannot shed its medieval encumbrances. Recommended."—Choice

“. . . [a] tightly focused . . . genuinely enlightening book.”—Theo Hobson, Times Literary Supplement

Received an honorable mention for the 2009 Gavel Award given by the American Bar Association.
ISBN: 9780300219906
Publication Date: February 23, 2016
288 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
8 b/w illus.
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