An accused has a profound right not to be convicted of an offence which is not established by the evidential standard of proof “beyond reasonable doubt”. Supreme Court in Krishnan and another v. State represented by Inspector of Police (2003) 7 SCC 56, held that the doubts would be called reasonable if they are free from a zest for abstract speculation. Law cannot afford any favourite other than truth and to constitute reasonable doubt, it must be free from an overemotional response. Doubts must be actual and substantial doubts as to the guilt of the accused persons arising from the evidence, or from the lack of it, as opposed to mere vague apprehensions.

Reasonable Doubt

A reasonable doubt is not an imaginary, trivial or a merely possible doubt, but a fair doubt based upon reason and common sense. It must grow out of the evidence in the case. In Ramakant Rai v. Madan Rai and others (2002)12 SCC 395, the above principle has been reiterated.

In Commonwealth v. John W. Webster 5 Cush. 295, 320 (1850), Massachusetts Court, as early as in 1850, has explained the expression “reasonable doubt” as follows:

“Reasonable doubt … is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction.”

In our criminal justice system, for recording guilt of the accused, it is not necessary that the prosecution should prove the case with absolute or mathematical certainty, but only beyond reasonable doubt. Criminal Courts, while examining whether any doubt is beyond reasonable doubt, may carry in their mind, some “residual doubt”, even though the Courts are convinced of the accused persons’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Residual Doubt

‘Residual doubt’ is a mitigating circumstance, sometimes, used and urged before the Jury in the United States and, generally, not found favour by the various Courts in the United States. In Donald Gene Franklin v. James A. Lynaugh, Director, Texas Department of Corrections 487 US 164 (1988): 101 L Ed 2d 155, while dealing with the death sentence, held as follows:

“Petitioner also contends that the sentencing procedures followed in his case prevented the jury from considering, in mitigation of sentence, any “residual doubts” it might have had about his guilt. Petitioner uses the phrase “residual doubts” to refer to doubts that may have lingered in the minds of jurors who were convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but who were not absolutely certain of his guilt.

The plurality and dissent reject petitioner’s “residual doubt” claim because they conclude that the special verdict questions did not prevent the jury from giving mitigating effect to its “residual doubt[s]” about petitioner’s guilt. This conclusion is open to question, however.

 Although the jury was permitted to consider evidence presented at the guilt phase in the course of answering the special verdict questions, the jury was specifically instructed to decide whether the evidence supported affirmative answers to the special questions “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Because of this instruction, the jury might not have thought that, in sentencing petitioner, it was free to demand proof of his guilt beyond all doubt.”

In California v. Brown 479 U.S. 541 and other cases, the US Courts took the view, “”Residual doubt” is not a fact about the defendant or the circumstances of the crime, but a lingering uncertainty about facts, a state of mind that exists somewhere between “beyond a reasonable doubt” and “absolute certainty.” Petitioner’s “residual doubt” claim is that the States must permit capital sentencing bodies to demand proof of guilt to “an absolute certainty” before imposing the death sentence. Nothing in our cases mandates the imposition of this heightened burden of proof at capital sentencing.

The supreme court in Ashok Debbarma @ Achak Debbarma vs State Of Tripura, 2014, said, “In this country, as already indicated, expect the prosecution to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, but not with “absolute certainty”. But, in between “reasonable doubt” and “absolute certainty”, a decision maker’s mind may wander possibly, in a given case, he may go for “absolute certainty” so as to award death sentence, short of that he may go for “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Suffice it to say, so far as the present case is concerned, we entertained a lingering doubt as to whether the appellant alone could have executed the crime single handedly, especially when the prosecution itself says that it was the handiwork of a large group of people. If that be so, in our view, the crime perpetrated by a group of people in an extremely brutal, grotesque and dastardly manner, could not have been thrown upon the appellant alone without charge- sheeting other group of persons numbering around 35. All element test as well as the residual doubt test, in a given case, may favour the accused, as a mitigating factor.”