Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Blog Category: Film, Media

The cult film noir Detour has an unusual take on murder. The ‘hero’ is neither a hardened criminal or an innocent man fighting for justice.

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Detour (1945)

Instead the main character, hitchhiker Al Roberts, asks us to believe that he has accidentally become a double killer.

Watching it was a bit like listening in court to a defendant giving his explanation from the witness box.

That man I left naked by the side of the road with a nasty gash on his head? Well he must have died in his sleep and then fallen and hit his head on a large rock. I took his clothes, his money and his car because there was no other choice. Nobody would believe what really happened.

That girl lying dead on the bed in a motel room? I must have accidentally strangled her with the telephone wire trying to stop her calling the police.

The film portrays these events plausibly enough. But as Al Roberts says, when considering whether to go to the police: ‘They’d laugh at the truth.’

When it comes to the courts these decisions are made by the jury on the basis of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But what exactly is a reasonable doubt?

Juries, faced with the responsibility of sending a man to prison, ask this question so often that judges now tend to give the altternative explanation that they ‘have to be sure’ of a defendant’s guilt.

Sometimes this appears to confuse people even more. It doesn’t mean you have to be 100 per cent certain of guilt – after all, can anyone be 100 per cent certain of anything?

There are potential explanations for almost every crime. In one case a suspected killer whose DNA was found on the victim’s body claimed that he just happened to find her corpse lying by the side of the road and decided to have sex with it.

It was quite obviously ludicrous, but it was theoretically possible.

Not every killer is caught in the act on CCTV or confesses under questioning. DNA or fingerprints are not always found at the scene. The jury have to reach their decision after considering all the evidence presented in court. And if they are not convinced of guilt they should acquit, even if they suspect they did commit the crime.

There is a reason for such a high standard of proof, and it’s easier to understand it by putting yourself in the shoes of the defendant in the dock. And I’d bet that almost everyone would prefer the decision to be made by 12 members of the public than a legally-trained judge.

Because, as Al Roberts says at the end of the film, ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.’

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Detour [1945] is now public domain and can be watched for free online.

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