Beyond Reasonable Doubt: An Abductive Dilemma in Criminal Law

John Woods


In criminal cases at common law, juries are permitted to convict on wholly circumstantial evidence even in the face of a reasonable case for acquittal. This generates the highly counterintuitive—if not absurd—consequence that there being reason to think that the accused didn’t do it is not reason to doubt that he did. This is the no-reason-to-doubt problem. It has a technical solution provided that the evidence on which it is reasonable to think that the accused didn’t do it is a different subset of the total evidence from that on which there is no reason to doubt that he did do it. It lies in the adversarial nature of criminal proceedings in the common law tradition that the subsets of the total evidence on which counsel base their opposing arguments are themselves different from and often incompatible with one another. While this solves the no-reason-to-doubt problem, it does so at the cost of triggering a second problem just as bad. It is the no-rival problem, according to which incompatible theories of the case based on incompatible subsets of the evidence cannot be rivals of one another. If neither party’s case contradicts the other’s then, by the burden of proof requirement, criminal convictions are impossible. Once having generated the dilemma, the object of the paper is to determine how it might be escaped.


abduction, circumstantial evidence, evidence, evidence-filtrations, guessing, ignorance-preserving inference, inference to the best explanation, hypothesis of the case, reasonable doubt, reasonable hypothesis, theory of the case, theory of the evidence

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ISSN: 0824-2577