Next week, FX will begin airing its 10-part miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. I’ve seen the first few episodes of the series, and despite what you might expect from a Ryan Murphy show, the American Horror Story and Glee creator plays it (mostly) straight. It’s very good. Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, American Crime Story presents the Simpson case from all the angles, with much of the focus on the legal strategies devised by the prosecution and defense.
One of the many questions the series attempts to answer is why Simpson wasn’t convicted. Some of it has to do with the prosecution team led by Marcia Cross (Sarah Paulson), whom the series depicts as wildly overconfident. The evidence seems so overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution that the state doesn’t see any way they can lose, in spite of the many mistakes made by the police and the prosecution’s legal team, and the public sentiment in Simpson’s favor.
Simpson’s team, meanwhile, knows the evidence has them dead to rights — there’s essentially a trail of blood from Nicole Simpson’s house to O.J.’s home that ends in a pair of bloody gloves — so their strategy is not to prove that O.J. is innocent, but to poke holes into the prosecution’s theory, to call into question every single piece of evidence, and to cast doubt on his guilt. A lot of that involves confusing the jurors.
Obviously, it worked. Simpson’s legal team got him off for a murder that the majority of people — both then and now — believe he committed. But why?
It’s a simple reason, really, and it’s the same reason that comes up time and again in murder cases. In fact, though the circumstances, the race and gender, and the socioeconomics of the defendants in the two most talked about legal cases in pop culture of the last year and a half are wildly different, there is a through line between O.J. Simpson case, the case at the center of Making a Murderer and the case in the first season of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial. Each of those three cases turned on a simple legal concept that is easy to explain but complicated in its application: Reasonable doubt.
Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Law and Order or a David E. Kelley legal drama understands that in a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed a crime. In other words, a reasonable juror can only convict if he or she has ruled out any reasonable belief that the defendant didn’t do it. It’s not the defendant’s job to prove he is innocent; it’s the prosecution’s burden to prove guilt.
While that definition may sound relatively clear in theory, it’s anything but in practice. Reasonable doubt is a subjective term and can mean different things to different people, and even what one might consider a “reasonable person” may differ depending on one’s perspective. (Historically, in fact, a “reasonable person” has referred to what a “reasonable man” might conclude, which would obviously differ from a what a “reasonable woman” might believe in many sexual assault cases.)
To understand the application of reasonable doubt, it’s also important to understand who determines what during a trial. A criminal trial is broken down into two kinds of questions: Legal questions and factual questions. Legal questions, which refer to what kind of evidence is admissible or who is and is not allowed to testify, are decided by a judge. Factual and credibility questions, for the most part, are determined by the jury. In other words, it’s up to a judge to decide whether a particular witness is allowed to testify, but it’s up to a jury to decide if that witness is credible or believable. Likewise, a judge decides what evidence can be introduced at trial, but it is up to a jury to decide if the evidence is credible.