Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Conquest of 1066’

Benefit of the Doubt

Posted by Admin on February 6, 2021

When someone is given the benefit of the doubt, it means they are allowing for the possibility that what is being purported as factual may actually be true even if it doesn’t sound like it may be. In other words, no matter how outlandish something being claimed might sound, accepting it at face value for the time being is how what is being claimed is interpreted.

In fact, Paul Faulkner of the University of Sheffield published a paper in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies in February 2018 which was titled, “Giving The Benefit of the Doubt.” The abstract began thusly:

Faced with evidence that what a person said is false, we can nevertheless trust them and so believe what they say – choosing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly notable when the person is a friend, or someone we are close to. Towards such persons, we demonstrate a remarkable epistemic partiality. We can trust, and so believe, our friends even when the balance of the evidence suggests that what they tell us is false. And insofar as belief is possible, it is also possible to acquire testimonial knowledge on those occasions when the friends know what they tell us. This paper seeks to explain these psychological and epistemological possibilities.

In 2000, the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 was passed (Public Law 106-475, 106th Congress, 2nd Session) in which the following is found:

SEC. 4. DECISION ON CLAIM.

Section 5107 of title 38, United States Code, is amended to read as follows:

“Sec. 5107. Claimant responsibility; benefit of the doubt

“(a) Claimant Responsibility.  Except as otherwise provided by law, a claimant has the responsibility to present and support a claim for benefits under laws administered by the Secretary.
“(b) Benefit of the Doubt.  The Secretary shall consider all information and lay and medical evidence of record in a case before the Secretary with respect to benefits under laws administered by the Secretary. When there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter, the Secretary shall give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant.”

Back in 1987, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (15 March 1933 – 18 September 2020) stated in the Federal Judicial, Pattern Criminal Jury Instruction 17-18 at instruction 21 that the following was true:

There are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty, and in criminal cases the law does not require proof that overcomes every possible doubt. If based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty. If on the other hand, you think there is a real possibility that he is not guilty, you must give him the benefit of the doubt and find him not guilty.

In 1910, American novelist and social activist Jack London (12 January 1876 – 11 November 1915) saw his short story “The Benefit of the Doubt” published.  In this story, the benefit of the doubt is a central theme as seen in this passage.

Both Patsy’s attorney and the Prosecuting Attorney rested their cases, letting everything go before the Court without argument. Watson protested against this, but was silenced when the Prosecuting Attorney told him that Public Prosecutor and knew his business.

“Patrick Horan has testified that he was in danger of his life and that he was compelled to defend himself,” Judge Witberg’s verdict began. “Mr. Watson has testified to the same thing. Each has sworn that the other struck the first blow; each has sworn that the other made an unprovoked assault on him. It is an axiom of the law that the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt. A very reasonable doubt exists. Therefore, in the case of the People Versus Carter Watson the benefit of the doubt is given to said Carter Watson and he is herewith ordered discharged from custody. The same reasoning applies to the case of the People Versus Patrick Horan. He is given the benefit of the doubt and discharged from custody. My recommendation is that both defendants shake hands and make up.”

In the years leading up to Jack London’s short story and in subsequent years, many authors have thought “The Benefit of the Doubt” to be a wonderful title for their writing. This includes, Mary Clare Wilson Spenser (2 May 1842 – 4 October 1923) whose first book by that name was published in 1882.

General Sir Charles James Napier (10 August 1782 – 29 August 1853), in writing to Keith Young on 21 February 1844, expressed concern for a man accused of murdering a European woman especially in light of the fact that the accused was a local. The man was subject to Sio Kari law under the then-colonial government of the Sindh region in southern Pakistan. Of this particular case, he wrote:

On this occasion both Captain Preedy and yourself have decided that there is no proof against this man — the murderer of Mrs. Barnes. I shall therefore, as you are so satisfied and so impressed, give him the benefit [of the doubt] at your request. But by this weakness, for such it is, I am guilty of having murdered every man I have hanged in this and other countries; for so help God! in the whole course of a long life, and the experience of some thousands of trials, I never saw proofs more perfect of guilt, except where the crime was avowed, than those against Buska Chandia. As to its afterwards appearing that he was innocent, I should not believe it if all Scinde swore to it. I am quite ready to take that chance; but as you seem to consider that Preedy tried him, and you are both, I consider, blind to facts, he shall escape.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: General Sir Charles James Napier was a Major General of the Bombay Army where he led the military conquest of Sindh before becoming the Governor of Sindh as well as the Commander-in-Chief of India.

Multiple dictionaries indicate that the expression is from the 1850s and from General Sir Charles James Napier’s correspondence, this supports the claim the expression was in use — or implied in certain circumstances — during his time in Bombay.

However, in France, there is a court record of a seamstress named Marie Maire who was accused of infanticide in 1786. While Marie Maire admitted to having miscarried a child in her fourth or fifth month of pregnancy (she wasn’t certain how long she had been pregnant), she denied being responsible for the child’s death. But no body could be found to substantiate the accusation against her so when her lawyer urged the judges to “give her the benefit of the doubt in light of the fact that public opinion always exaggerates … public clamor rarely leads to truth” the parliament of Dijon acquitted her of the charges against her on 13 February 1786.

This was reported in “Causes célèbres” published in 1787. The case of Marie Maire was listed as Case 511 and is found on pages 188 and 189.

In the case of Rex v Preston in 1770, the closing arguments and the judge’s instructions to the jury have never been found in the case of Captain Preston who, along with eight other soldiers, was arrested and charged with firing into a crowd of protesting Bostonians on 5 March 1770 which resulted in the death of five people.

John Adams (yes, the same John Adams who was the second President of the United States of America) argued in his closing arguments that “the best rule in doubtful cases, is, rather to incline to acquittal than conviction … If you doubt the prisoner’s guilt, never declare him guilty.”

Robert Treat Paine was the lawyer arguing for the Crown, and in his closing statements (per Volume 3 of the Legal Papers of John Adams) and Paine agreed that jurors would have to acquit if they had any doubts, but if they had any doubts, those doubts had to be reasonable.

If therefore in the examination of this Cause the Evidence is not sufficient to Convince you beyond reasonable Doubt of the Guilt of all or any of the Prisoners by the Benignity and Reason of the Law you will acquit them, but if the Evidence be sufficient to convince you of their Guilt beyond reasonable Doubt the Justice of the Law will require you to declare them Guilty.

So while there are no records of the closing arguments or the judge’s instructions to the jury in this case from 1770, it’s doubtful John Adams — the future President of the United States of America — would misrepresent what Robert Treat Paine said in making his closing arguments to the Court.

Interestingly enough, the standard of reasonable doubt was neither new nor innovative, and existed in traditional English law. So the concept dates back to considerably longer than most people realize.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version or variation of the expression and therefore it is pegged at 1786 in France with a serious acknowledgement to traditional English law which has been in place since the Norman Conquest of 1066.

 

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »