It is well-known and much understood that criminal liability only comes when a person is found guilty in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt. The question of what creates reasonable doubt will often depend on the circumstances surrounding the case. Often, the evidence in a case is based largely on witnesses. What happens if the witnesses do not identify the defendant? Does this lack of identification mean that there is reasonable doubt with respect to the defendant? If this does not create reasonable doubt, then what is the standard?
McCullen v. State
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard an appeal from the defendant in the 1963 case of McCullen v. State. In that case, the prosecution presented evidence of a 5-year-old girl who had been playing in her yard. She says that a man came over to her and asked if she wanted a “big red sucker,” which the girl said yes. She said that the man took her to his home and wrapped her eyes in a towel. He then said that he will put the candy in her mouth and she should suck. She said that she peeped under the towel and saw his “weenie.” The prosecution charged the man with aggravated sexual assault.
The trial court found the defendant guilty. On appeal, the defendant claimed that he was not guilty because nothing in the record positively identified him as the assailant. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, finding that the case lacked sufficient evidence to reach a beyond a reasonable doubt standard. As such, the defendant’s guilty verdict was reversed.
Sufficiency Without Identifying the Defendant
Over time, a number of court cases distinguished between the ruling in McCullen and the facts of the specific cases. In McCullen, the defendant was unknown to any of the witnesses. The facts were that a girl told her mother that a man sexually assaulted the little girl. There were references to a man in a house but that was it. The evidence did not point to specific witness testimony of a specific man or a specific house.
In contrast, many later cases had witnesses who testified that they know the defendant. While the witnesses may not have explicitly identified the witness as the perpetrator, it can be inferred from their testimony that the defendant was the perpetrator. Provided that it is clear that the witnesses knew the defendant, such is sufficient to be distinguishable from the McCullen case.
In sexual assault cases, the prosecution will often use forensic evidence such as a nurse’s testimony or findings from the Texas Child Protective Services, or CPS. From there, the prosecution will gather circumstantial evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt. To have a proper defense strategy, it is important to determine whether the witnesses can identify the defendant, even via inference. This point may determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence.
Accused of a crime? Are witnesses testifying against you? You need an advocate on your side who knows the law and knows how to win. Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel.
(image courtesy of Soroush Karimi)