Beyond a reasonable doubt: Why the Trump verdict deserves respect 

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

Beyond a reasonable doubt: Why the Trump verdict deserves respect 

Former President Donald Trump has been convicted of 34 felony counts of falsified business records from a jury trial. There remain 57 additional felony counts that have yet to be adjudicated. These numbers sensationalize the legal woes faced by the former president. Yet the number of felony counts is less significant than the fact that there were any such counts at all.  

The only acceptable number should be zero for a person who has served in the nation’s highest office and as its commander in chief.  

Independent of this verdict and those yet to be determined, any person in such a position of power and authority should display behavior and ethical standards that would never lead to actions that would risk being so accused. If such transgressions would occur, expressions of remorse and actions of restitution would be appropriate, which do not appear forthcoming. This is a sad time for our nation.  

The jury deemed that the evidence was sufficient to rule him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Note the court rulings are not “guilty” or “innocent,” they are “guilty” or “not guilty” for the charges levied. If there are any “reasonable doubts,” the jury is obliged to rule “not guilty.” In this case, there were no such doubts.  

The verdict will of course be appealed, as it should be, with new eyes giving it a second look. That is a right that should be exercised. 

No person is above the law, including elected officials. Yet our legal system has risks of two types of errors: that innocent people are found “guilty” or guilty people are found “not guilty.” The former is considered unacceptable; reducing such risk inevitably pushes the risk of the latter error higher. 

Despite all such precautions, innocent people do get convicted, though the rate is quite low. 

Avoiding such error is the basis of the British jurist William Blackstone’s ratio, which states that having 10 guilty people free is preferable to one innocent person incarcerated. 

That is also why the assumption in legal cases begins with “not guilty.” In the world of statistical inference, this means that the “null hypothesis,” or conjecture to be tested and evaluated, is “not guilty.” Rejecting this null hypothesis in favor of an alternative hypothesis — namely, “guilty” — is often a high bar to clear, which is why “beyond a reasonable doubt” must be satisfied. 

Statistical inferences of this type are used anywhere conjectures must be evaluated and resolved. For example, clinical trials are widely used in medicine to assess whether a new treatment, intervention or pharmaceutical product offers clinical benefits that exceed the existing standard of care. Marginal improvement may be identified during the assessment but may be insufficient to warrant approval.  

A similar concept applies at airport security checkpoints. Some travelers are subjected to secondary screening when they sound an alarm on a primary screening device, though nearly all these alarms are resolved. This ensures that most risky items brought to checkpoints do not find their way into the sterile side of airports. 

The same can be said with court rulings. The standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” must be met by all members of a jury, or the ruling may be deadlocked.  

Having a former commander in chief in such a situation is disappointing. Given all the evidence provided, the legal system functioned as it should, and even with such a high bar to clear, a guilty verdict was given. 

What is even more disturbing is how some politicians have commented on the verdict, with politics, not principles, ubiquitous. This has been the case with Republican lawmakers, who convolute the legal process with the legal ruling. Just because the outcome of a trial is undesirable does not mean that the process is flawed. This reeks of those who claimed the 2020 election was stolen, with all evidence pointing to the contrary

The one exception to this cacophony is Larry Hogan, the former Republican governor of Maryland who is now seeking the state’s Senate seat. He commented that the court’s ruling “must be respected”, a comment that any reasonable person with knowledge of our legal system would voice. 

Yet the environment in Washington appears to offer a paucity of reasonable people, based on their words. Numerous Republican elected officials and people in authority have attacked Hogan for his statement, including the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, who happens to also be Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law (with a clear conflict of interest in the matter). When opinions are colored by politics, not principles, one must begin to question the politics. 

Elected officials are, by their very label, elected to serve the people and execute the business of our nation. When such people begin to serve their party’s interests over the wellbeing of the nation, the end result is ugly at best, and destabilizing at worst.  

Based on last week’s court ruling, a former president has been deemed a convicted felon by the courts. Every court case tests a hypothesis based on all the information available. Both the prosecution and the defense are given the opportunity to make their cases. A judge or jury evaluates all the evidence to reach their verdict. This is the foundation of our legal system. If our legal system cannot be trusted, our nation has problems far worse than a former president being so convicted. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.