18 September 2007

A succinct commentary on these postmodern times

by Phil Johnson


"One woman juror said she wanted clarification on the difference between 'doubt' and 'reasonable doubt,' although [the judge] said later he doubted further instruction would help."

——from a news item about the jury deadlock in the Phil Specter murder trial.

Phil's signature


donsands said...

I had to read that a few times, and I'm still baffled.

Phil Johnson said...

I doubt any clarification would help.

David A. Carlson said...

Without googling, just what is the legal definition of "reasonable doubt"?

I "doubt" anyone here will know

ezekiel said...

Doubt that a reasonable person would have considering the same set of facts.....

donsands said...

"I doubt any clarification would help."

Laughter is good for the soul.

Mucho gracias.

candy said...

So the juror was confused or reasonably confused? Oh. Am I repeating myself or am I redundant?

I have a reasonable doubt justice will be served or maybe I just doubt justice will be served. Sigh. I'm so confused!

John Haller said...

Confession: I am a trial lawyer. Welcome to my world. This kind of stuff happens all the time.

True story: in the first trial that I first chaired about 18 months out of law school, the jury came back with a question: if we find for the defendant (my client) could we still give the plaintiff something? That was 25 years ago. It's not getting better.

What you might find interesting is that all of the seminars that train lawyers in how to communicate with a jury are based on "telling them a story" and "relating to their experience." Facts and truth are irrelevant.

It's a pomo world.

Stephen Newell said...

This is priceless. Or does it have no listed cost?

James Scott Bell said...

Dudes, this was actually a very good question by the juror. It's the antithesis of pomo; it is in fact trying to dig into the literal meaning of the jury instruction, something TeamPyro ought to applaud. It's no different than someone trying to get to the meaning of a Scripture passage.

The pomo response would have been to say, "Hey, whatever, I just think the guy in the wig's guilty."

But apparently this juror actually, gasp, took her oath seriously and wanted, gasp, clarification on the LANGUAGE OF THE LAW. Don't blame her; applaud her.

And while it is true trial lawyers a trained to "tell stories," it is only those who can explain the law to the jurors and make it fit the facts who consistently win.

See, Spector LOOKS guilty, but the FACTS are exceedingly hard to prove. The prosecution did a great job, but there is apparently "doubt" in the jury room. We don't know if this juror is for guilt or innocence, but asking for clarification from the judge is no different than going to Dr. MacArthur for clarification on Romans 7:23.

Don't jump to contusions on this one.

Phil Johnson said...


I would be happy (for all the reasons you gave) if the woman's request were merely for a clarification of the legal terminology.

My scorn is directed at the way the question was framed: "the difference between 'doubt' and 'reasonable doubt'"—alongside the judge's own assumption that providing such clarification would most likely be rather pointless anyway.

Notice: both juror and judge seem certain enough about the meaning of the word doubt but rather clueless about what's reasonable. That's a fine example of what's wrong with the postmodern mind.

Strong Tower said...

Reasonable person?

To dream the impossible dream...to beat the unbeatable foe...

To know the love of Christ which passes all understanding...

It's just not reasonable, yaz know, to have to cross the bridge to know it is safe. No one has ever gone over that bridge and lived to tell about it, cept one crazed dude talking all about eating flesh and drinking blood and weird stuff like that.

Can we believe in Jesus beyond a reasoable doubt? Or do we have to already be on the other side to know that we have no reasonable doubt about crossing the brdge when we come to it?

Deja dude

James Scott Bell said...

Phil, I'm still not sure "scorn" is the right response here. The written law itself distinguishes "doubt" and "reasonable doubt." That's not a pomo tangent; it's one of the foundations of criminal justice.

The juror's question thus seems reasonable, indeed, the very thing we want from jurors. I would like to have seen the judge's exact reply. It's a little hazy from this report.

So I'm not ready yet to label this little blurb an example of "the pomo mind."

Phil Johnson said...

Again, I have no problem with proper distinctions for clarity's sake. What I object to is the type of thinking that treats the meaning of doubt as self-evident while assuming that explaining what's reasonable is going to be pointless.

dec said...

Reasonable doubt.

Unreasonable doubt.

Where is there room for doubt?

Kim said...

It's no different than someone trying to get to the meaning of a Scripture passage.

Well, (*treading very cautiously because I don't like to seem obnoxious*) in my very limited intellectual capacity, I don't think discerning the meaning of a word that does not contain life is quite the same thing as trying to discern the meaning of Scripture.

But that's just me.

I'm just a homeschool mom.

John Haller said...

The jury is instructed on the term reasonable doubt. The lawyers will discuss its meaning in voir dire of the jury before trial, they are usually instructed on it before the trial starts and they are instructed on it at the close of the case.

My guess is that this is a lady who is not applying facts to law, but is basing her decision on her emotions. That's the problem.

Daryl said...

Who knew that this little anecdote would create so much discussion...

Sounds to me like she (and a whole lot of other people) freely doubt even proven truth...hence the wierdness of her question.

Kind of like "I know the experts say coffee is hot, but I'm not so sure..."

Or better yet, "I realize the Bible teaches election, but I doubt it could really be true."

I think jd et al should go with the judge's take on this one...

Somethings deserve scorn.

David A. Carlson said...

Hard to believe JD and I agree on something, yet we do.

Reasonable Doubt is an issue many jurors deal with. It is not an easy concept, especially when your decision may free a killer, or lock an innocent person up for life. First you must understand it (while Ezekiel took a shot at it, his definition is not even close), then you must wrestle with it's application. And it's application is completely subjective - it is indeed dependant upon the jurors own opinion.

Several other views
1) Never take what a newspaper reports at face value, especially when they start summarizing complex proceedings. Reporters and editiors are not always that smart and are often driven by soundbites.
2) Judges are not always all that smart either. My first involvement in politics was a recall election of a Judge who told a rape victim she should of laid back and enjoyed it. Of course 20 years later the judge I help get elected in his place managed to get busted for drinking/driving/leaving the scene of an accident

James Scott Bell said...

"My guess is that this is a lady who is not applying facts to law, but is basing her decision on her emotions."

That would be a guess all right, and one I don't agree with. And that's exactly why we tell juries NOT to guess.

If she were basing this on her emotions, why would she ask for clarification?

Let's look at it another way. The judge instructs the jury that the fact the defendant does not take the stand has no legal significance.

In the jury room Juror #2 says, "Did you notice he didn't take the stand? He's guilty."

Juror #3 says, "That has no legal significance."

Juror #2, "That's just mumbo jumbo. I know in my heart..."

That would be a juror who doesn't care about the law.

I'm really quite surprised by those who think this snippet, about which so little is known but the fact that a juror seeks clarity on a legal distinction, is, on its face, some pomo collapse. Especially those who are quick to explain the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words within a verse of Scripture!

I'm still trying to discern (look at me, seeking clarity!) Phil's main objection, and from your last comment it seems more directed at the judge, right? That explaining "reasonable" would be "pointless." And therein lies the frustration we face with our pomo friends. I agree with your conclusion, Phil. I don't know that I'd use the judge for this, but it does sometimes seem pointless to try to explain that words have meaning to those for whom "meaning" has little value.

Kim: No one is saying that the law of our land and the Bible are the same. That's not the issue. The issue is how one approaches a text to discern meaning, and that's what this juror did.

Suppose, sitting in church, she hears Dr. MacArthur say something about a verse, and it's not clear to her. Shouldn't she ask someone, say, a Phil Johnson or Dr. M himself, what he meant? Or try to study it out on her own using authorities?

Shouldn't a juror seek clarity if a man's life is at stake?

Methinks there are several jurors expressing "doubt" and others who are trying to tell them that they're not being "reasonable" with their doubts. This woman juror could be on either side of this issue, we just don't know.

But asking for the meaning of the words is the opposite of a pomo approach.

David Rudd said...

is it possible the judges "doubt" was in reference to the gridlock, not the juror's query?

does it matter?

can we really interpret this snippet with any certainty?

(snickers at irony)

seriously. i'm not sure the context here warrants the discussion being held.

Unknown said...

David Rudd, I'm with you, the judge's comment could have been about the gridlock, we just don't have enough 'textual meat' to rule out possible interpretations of his statement.

However, I think we should take this over all point: it is easy to through out all kinds of rampant speculation to confuse truth, while this may create doubt this is not reasonable doubt.

However, if we live in a culture that focusses on feelings rather than seeking to interpret facts, then speculation can carry the weight of reasonable doubt when it is indeed no way reasonable and constructed from the facts.

BTW, did anybody true looking up reasonable doubt on wikipedia? I did and it sent me here. That seemed like quite the postmodern answer to me.

Solameanie said...

"Clarification," Phil? I'm shocked that you would even use such a word.

I think Brian McLaren would make a good court reporter, don't you? It would truly be a story he found himself in.

Solameanie said...


Unfortunately (and as a former journalist, I've covered plenty of trials), what we get more often than not is this:

"I know you think you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that what you heard is not what I meant."

Comprende? ;))

Jason A. Van Bemmel said...

Can't juries in California get ANYTHING right? I'm struck by the fact that OJ has just been arrested for burglary at the same time that the Spector jury is deadlocked.

On another note: I have launched a new blog and want to start a discussion on Federal Vision. Please check out what I have written and contribute your own thoughts. http://prochristorege.wordpress.com

John Haller said...


I suspect I've tried more cases than you. I know what goes on in there. I've been in similar situations many times.

My point, apart from this lady's wrestling with the distinction between doubt and reasonable doubt, is that the training of trial lawyers now focuses very often on making appeals to emotions. That speaks volumes about where were are in our culture and its impact upon the church.

I think this is where Phil was coming from.

I think you just need to step back and take a look at the big picture rather than deconstructing the minutia which is causing you to miss, I think, the larger point.

In that regard Phil's point is spot on.

Rhology said...

Is that like having faith that further instruction would help?

James Scott Bell said...

JH, that trial lawyers are trained to appeal to the emotions is not anything new. It's as old as Lincoln. I didn't see anything about that in Phil's post.

So I reacted to what was posted, and some comments.

I don't mind "stepping back" to look at some larger picture. I'm sure you and Phil and I agree on this.

(And I'm sure we can swap plenty of stories about the courtroom and what goes on therein)

Anonymous said...

The combination of your graphic and relating the post to postmodern times reminded me of an article (by Al Mohler) I read awhile back...

“The worldview of postmodernism – complete with an epistemology that denies the possibility of or need for propositional truth – affords the movement an opportunity to hop, skip and jump throughout the Bible and the history of Christian thought in order to take whatever pieces they want from one theology and attach them, like doctrinal post-it notes, to whatever picture they would want to draw”.

Phil Johnson said...

I want to be clear, here:

The central target of my scorn is not the legal process, the juror, or the judge in this story.

Furthermore, the point I am making doesn't hinge on whether the woman or the judge are themselves sympathetic to postmodern skepticism.

In that regard, Johhny D's point is valid: It's quite possible that the woman who asked this question is herself fed up with other jurors' ambiguity about what constitutes "reasonable doubt" and is sincerely asking for the legal language to be formally clarified. If so, good for her.

The judge's own expression of "doubt" (about the helpfulness of definitions) might very well be a perfect mirror of my own frustration with pomo thinking. (As a matter of fact, that's the point of my first comment in this thread.) If so, good for him.

In other words, both judge and juror could very well be stern and conscientious opponents of the postmodern fog-machine—indeed, they might be people who lead weekend seminars about why postmodernism's love affair with ambiguity is taking our culture to hell in a handbasket.

If that turned out to be the case, the exchange as reported would still be a succinct commentary on these postmodern times.

(And this comment thread only underscores that point, illustrating how the process of deconstruction never clarifies anything or settles any questions but instead has pretty much the opposite effect.)

My point in the above post itself was supposed to be simple, but it was perhaps too subtle to be effective.

Here it is straight up: It's a crying shame that doubt is an idea taken for granted and welcomed with open arms by almost everyone in these pomo times; but reasonableness is a concept not so easily embraced.

Unknown said...

No doubt, Phil. That's reasonable.

James Scott Bell said...

Phil for judge.

John Haller said...

LOL. Can you imagine that confirmation hearing?