Fuller v. State (No. PD-0779-11). On Appellant’s petition for discretionary review from the 5th Court of Appeals which had affirmed the conviction out of the 292nd Judicial District Court of Dallas County. Judge Price wrote the CCA’s opinion with Judges Keller, Meyers, Johnson, Hervey, Cochran, and Alcala joined. Judge Womack alone dissented. Opinion delivered March 28, 2012.
Ladarious Fuller was charged with capital murder, but the state did not elect to seek the death penalty. Before jury selection began, Fuller’s attorney sought permission to ask the potential jurors whether they understood that the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt was a higher standard than both the preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing evidence. The trial court denied the request, citing Paulson v. State, saying that because beyond a reasonable doubt has a commonly accepted meaning (and not a legal definition), it was improper to discuss what reasonable doubt is.
The CCA held that the trial court abused it’s discretion by not allowing the defense attorney to ask a proper question to potential jurors. “…Inquiry into a prospective juror’s understanding of what proof beyond a reasonable doubt means constitutes a proper question regardless of whether the law specifically defines the term….If anything, the fact that current case law…provides jurors with no definition of reasonable doubt only heightens the incentive for parties to test the understanding of venire members.” The opinion goes on to say that it’s particularly apt to ask if beyond a reasonable doubt is at least higher than preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing evidence since this is simply the flip side of the State’s routine “you won’t hold us to proof beyond all possible doubt, right?” schtick.
Finally, the court said that not just the question (whether the potential jurors understood the standard) was permissible – the lead in explaining the contrast between the various civil, quasi-criminal, and criminal standards of proof was permissible as well.