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Inadequate Washington State Jury Instruction Regarding Reasonable Doubt Ruled Harmless Error

Washington State prisoner Bruce Bennett, Jr., sought review in 2006 of an appellate affirmation of his escape conviction. He claimed that an inadequate jury instruction led to his conviction. The court ruled the instruction harmless error.

Bennett was tried for first degree escape. After both parties presented their case there was a debate over a specific jury instruction. Bennett requested Washington Pattern Jury Instruction 4.01 (WPIC). The instruction given was molded after State v. Castle. 86 Wn. App. 48, 935 P.2d 656 (1997) (Castle Instruction), which Bennett claimed violated due process. In part it read: " criminal cases the law, does not require proof that overcomes every possible doubt." He claimed that without further clarifying instruction it largely removed the state's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The WPIC read: " can say you have an abiding belief of the truth of the charge, you are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt."

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington ruled that the Castle Instruction was not preferable and was problematic but that it satisfied constitutional requirements. The court noted that it would instruct it's trial courts to utilize the preferred WPIC in future cases. See: State v. Bennett, 161 Wn.2d 303; 165 P.3d 1241 (Wash. 2007).

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Related legal case

State v. Bennett