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Proof beyond a context-relevant doubt. A structural analysis of the standard of proof in criminal adjudication

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Procedure deals with the machinery

by which legal controversies are settled

James B. Thayer

Abstract

The present article proceeds from the mainstream view that the conceptual framework underpinning adversarial systems of criminal adjudication, i.e. a mixture of common-sense philosophy and probabilistic analysis, is unsustainable. In order to provide fact-finders with an operable structure of justification, we need to turn to epistemology once again. The article proceeds in three parts. First, I examine the structural features of justification and how various theories have attempted to overcome Agrippa’s trilemma. Second, I put Inferential Contextualism to the test and show that a defeasible structure of justification allocating epistemic rights and duties to all participants of an inquiry manages to dissolve the problem of scepticism. Third, I show that our epistemic practice already embodies a contextualist mechanism. Our problem was not that our Standard of Proof is inoperable but that it was not adequately conceptualized. Contextualism provides the framework to articulate the abovementioned practice and to treat ‘reasonable doubts’ as a mechanism which we can now describe in detail. The seemingly insurmountable problem with our efforts to define the concept “reasonable doubts” was the fact that we have been conflating the surface features of this mechanism and its internal structure, i.e. the rules for its use.

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Notes

  1. In re Winship 397 U.S. 358 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring).

  2. See Tehan v. U.S., 383 U.S. 406, at 416 (1966) where the U.S. Supreme Court states unequivocally that the “basic purpose of a trial is the determination of truth”.

  3. See Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 1773 (2007).

  4. Id. at 1775 (majority opinion); Cf. Id. at 1781 (Stevens, J., dissenting).

  5. See e.g. State v. Dauphinee, 121 Pa. Super. 565, at 590 (1936).

  6. Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295 (Mass. 1850).

  7. Bourhill v. Young [1943] AC 92 (per Lord Wright).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to audiences in Liverpool, London and Lausanne for instructive discussion.

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Correspondence to Kyriakos N. Kotsoglou.

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Kotsoglou, K.N. Proof beyond a context-relevant doubt. A structural analysis of the standard of proof in criminal adjudication. Artif Intell Law 28, 111–133 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10506-019-09248-x

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