Unreasonable Doubt

Recently, I had the unpleasant duty of serving as a juror in a criminal trial — a DUI case. The prosecution presented what I counted as nine pieces of evidence that the defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol. Evidence was provided via witness testimonies, a police report and a video from the police car dash camera.

Without going into a lot of detail, some evidence was what I would call very strong and some very weak. For example, the state trooper testified that he saw the defendant having dexterity issues trying to pull out his driver’s license. It took too long. I can understand someone in that situation having trouble with hand dexterity due to nervousness.

The police dash cam recorded strong evidence. The defendant badly failed all three field sobriety tests per the police testimony & police report. We could clearly view two of the three sobriety tests on the video and all the jurors agreed that the defendant was obviously impaired by “something”. The police testimony & report also had an admission by the defendant that he had been drinking alcohol, although it was unclear how much because he refused the breathalyzer test.

It was a six person jury. After about a half hour of deliberating it was four voting “guilty”, including me, and two “not guilty”, and then the fun started. After about three more hours of arguing, it was five “guilty” and one “not guilty”. After another two hours of pulling out our hair, we were unanimous. But to be honest, I think the last holdout just wanted to go home, as it was now after 6:00pm and the judge ordered that no one will leave until we had a unanimous verdict.

A defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to be convicted. As you might imagine, what is reasonable doubt to one person is not reasonable doubt to another. I think I swayed one juror by drawing a diagram that I sometimes use when teaching analytical problem solving at work or when having discussions in the realm of Faith & Reason.

In the illustration below, an arrow represents a piece of evidence. You are asked to conclude if the nine arrows are pointing to the red dot beyond a reasonable doubt (guilty) or not (not guilty).

The defense and two of the jurors were very good at raising a lot doubts over and over again:

  • Arrow 1: Look closely; it’s not pointing to the red dot; it’s pointing just above it.
  • Arrow 2: What is that? An arrow? Looks like a tiny UFO to me.
  • Arrow 3: Technically, not an arrow.
  • Arrow 4: It’s just pointing to the left in general and look how small it is.
  • Arrow 5: Aren’t arrows supposed to be straight?
  • Arrow 6: I can barely see it.
  • Arrow 7: To far from the red dot to be certain where it is pointing, like arrow 4
  • Arrow 8: Same problem as Arrow 7
  • Arrow 9: It’s pointing in two directions. Why give more weight to one side?
  • Arrows 1-9: Could we not say that all the so-called arrows are really just pointing to the center of the picture and the red dot just happens to be there?

No arrow is perfect, so I listen to all the “doubts” and then look back and contemplate the illustration looking at all the arrows (not just the ones I like best). Considering the “Big Picture”, I ask myself two questions:

  • Can I honestly say the arrows point to the red dot beyond any possible doubt? No
  • Can I honestly say the arrows point to the red dot beyond any reasonable doubt? Yes

There is a tie-in to all this with Faith & Reason and discussions around the existence of God. Our criminal justice system is skewed to protect the innocent. There is a presumption of innocence. In other words, it is more probable for the guilty to go free than for the innocent to be punished. But in everyday life, we use different premises and different procedures in order to prove things to ourselves.

Imagine you had to argue for the existence of “time”. To be completely objective, you would not start with a firm presumption of its existence or nonexistence. We also need a clear definition and way to argue it, since time is not observed directly. No one can hand you a box full of time and say, “Here ya go.” We only know time exists by its effects and other modes of reasoning.

Along the same vein, it’s important to distinguish between how Catholic teaching defines God vs. other “god(s)” because the word “God” is often used as an over-generalization; it means too many different things to too many different people. In other words, if you ask a random stranger, “Do you believe in God?” and he or she says “Yes”, you’ll really have no idea what that person believes. And like “time”, God is not observed directly, but we can observe “effects” and use other modes of reasoning.

Here is a link to 20 arguments for the existence of what Catholics (and many non-Catholics) call God. Think of each one as an arrow that seems to point to something. It takes some familiarity with philosophy and metaphysics to really understand all 20 arguments and I could pretty much guarantee you that a strong atheist, also familiar with philosophy and metaphysics, would find a problem with many or all 20 “arrows”.

I can agree that no argument is perfect and I can listen to all the “doubts”; then look back and contemplate all the “arrows” (not just the ones I like best). Considering the “Big Picture”, I ask myself two questions… a bit differently than might be asked in a criminal trial:

  • Can I honestly say the 20 arguments absolutely prove the existence of God?   No
  • Can I honestly say the 20 arguments reasonably prove the existence of God? Yes

Doubt is something we can all relate to. From the Apostles, to some of the greatest saints, to the most orthodox atheist, “doubt” is a part of our reality. “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 28:17). “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). Belief in anything has a certain “risk-leap” about it and posing heartfelt questions is a natural response, but any real understanding must begin with a honest attempt to believe, and you must first know what the idea would mean if it were actually true. Beginning the conversation with a litany of doubts, however, already begins the end of the conversation and actively seeks to point all “arrows” toward unbelief.

I’ll end this essay with part of the closing argument from the prosecuting attorney in the trial I was in. It went something like this…

I have a four letter word for this trial…The word is “duck”.

  • If it walks like a duck
  • Quacks like a duck
  • Looks like a duck
  • Acts like a duck
  • And smells like a duck
  • …It’s a duck!!!

More to explorer


  1. The last time I was on an jury group of 40 or so for choosing a 6 person jury and two alternates, I was “Number 3.” Before any questioning by either side’s attorney, the judge-very wise -definitely not her first rodeo, told us this was a DUI case. Now the defendant had already entered the courtoom dressed in a nice suit and tie as were his two attorneys. Eveyone could see he was at least 55 years old. The judge asked the general question of the entire group- “Since this is a DUI case, does anyone think that any previous experience might mean that they cannot judge all the evidence in this case fairly.?”

    I raised my hand, as did well over half of the over 40 people. Numbers 1 and 2 did not, so the judge began with me. [for the better part of two decades I did civil trials, never a criminal one; I was well familiar with law of evidence, judicial process, etc.]. I told the judge about one of my daughter’s as a teenager being hit by a drunk driver, the side of her face smashed and broken, [eye was saved] what ensued because of all that; and that I simply could not say honestly I would be fair in this case. There was minimal questioing of me by both sides. Then on to Number 6 – worse story, mother dies due to DUI driver; and so on for about 6 more stories, many injured, many dead. The judge turned to the bailiff and said something, then she said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we thank you for your service, you are being dismissed and we are going to get another panel here to choose a jury.” We got our vouchers for $12 or so, which would pay most of my parking for the day, and we all went home.

    As I drove home, I thought he was well over 50, had a lawyer, this was not his first DUI rodeo, and maybe there would be justice. The thoughts never entered my head that he was guilty or not guilty – but I knew I could not, would not judge impartially.

    On to God proof: Ladies and Gentlemen, do any of you have any experience which might mean you cannot judge these arguments rationally? “Yes sinner Number 3 [me]”:
    Your honor, since I can remember I have experienced countless acts of selfless love by others, family, nonfamily, friend, nonfriends, teachers, fellow soldiers, and many more, and, yes, even utter strangers, who have shown love to me throughout my life. I know there is no locigal connection between all these syllogisms and those acts of love; but I must honestly say that someone else putting my happiness before theirs, and some sacrificing hugely for me will absolutely color how I view these mere rational arguments.”

    Deo Gratias!

    Guy, Texas

  2. I like that arrow diagram. An excellent visual metaphor for “missing the forest for the trees.”

    And “the devil in the details.”

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