Defying DNA: Rethinking the Role of the Jury in an Age of Scientific Proof of Innocence

53 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2013 Last revised: 17 May 2014

See all articles by Andrea L. Roth

Andrea L. Roth

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: March 25, 2013


In 1946, public outrage erupted after a jury ordered Charlie Chaplin to support a child who, according to apparently definitive blood tests, was not his. Half a century later, juries have again defied apparently definitive evidence of innocence, finding criminal defendants guilty based on a confession or eyewitness notwithstanding exculpatory DNA test results. One might expect judges in such cases to direct an acquittal, on grounds that the evidence is legally insufficient because no rational juror could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet few if any do. Instead, courts defer to juries when they form an actual belief in guilt based on testimonial evidence, however weak, and even when contradicted by highly compelling evidence of innocence. In this Article, I argue that guilty verdicts defying DNA uniquely upend three assumptions underlying this deference doctrine: first, that juries are particularly good at determining credibility, and that the public believes this to be so; second, that reserving credibility as the province of the jury maintains systemic legitimacy by avoiding trial by machine; and third, that the reasonable doubt standard should focus on jurors’ actual belief in guilt rather than solely on the quantum and quality of proof. After explaining why the deference doctrine is unjustified, I propose changes to sufficiency law that would foreclose convictions in the face of evidence difficult to reconcile with guilt, while also ensuring that judges do not place science on an epistemic pedestal or intrude upon the jury’s role as voice and conscience of the community.

Keywords: DNA, sufficiency, reasonable doubt, statistical evidence

Suggested Citation

Roth, Andrea L., Defying DNA: Rethinking the Role of the Jury in an Age of Scientific Proof of Innocence (March 25, 2013). Boston University Law Review, Forthcoming, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2239283, Available at SSRN:

Andrea L. Roth (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

442 Boalt Hall (North Addition)
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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