There is a scene, often repeated in detective fiction and film, where the suspect is seated in a small gray or beige room at a table with two chairs and a single light dangling overhead. A police detective is seated in the other chair across from the suspect; another officer paces. After the police present the evidence with appropriate pauses and photographs, the suspect leans back (or forward) and states, “It’s all circumstantial. You don’t even have a body.”
In 1850 Dr. John W. Webster, professor of chemistry at Harvard Medical College, was hanged following his conviction for the murder of his colleague Dr. George Parkham. The evidence was entirely circumstantial and, it remains questionable whether Parkham’s body was found. But both, the crime and body, were proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” and Dr. Webster went to the gallows.
The case of Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295; 5 Cush. 295 (1850) definitively sets forth the concept of “reasonable doubt.” The language on reasonable doubt, written by Justice Lemuel Shaw, who was also a trial judge in the case, is used verbatim to instruct the jury in every criminal case tried in Massachusetts to this day.
“Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because every thing relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. If upon such proof there is reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt . . . .” at 320.
I imagine the Devil visited Dr. Webster in a moment of weakness when temptation was easiest. The Devil, like disease, is opportunistic. The Devil offered Dr. Webster a deal beyond all imagining. He would rid Dr. Webster of his miserly colleague to whom he owed money and give him years of prosperity in exchange for his soul. Dr. Webster considered the offer. As he thought, he developed a plan. Surrounded by cadavers at the medical college he loathed the fragility of the human body; each corpse reminding him of his destiny. He wanted immortality. Surely the Devil could make him immortal. And if he was immortal, the Devil would never be able to cull his soul.
When the Devil returned Dr. Webster proposed trading the offered years of prosperity for immortality as long as he would be allowed to keep his wits until judgment day. “You can never be too careful when dealing with the Devil,” he thought. “If I am to live forever, I must be able to make my way in the world.”
The Devil agreed. “So be it, the death of Dr. Parkham and immortality, for your soul. Done.” Dr. Webster believed he had outsmarted the wishmaster.
By all accounts when Dr. Webster heard the verdict of guilty he stared frozen for several minutes supporting himself with the bar. The moment must have seemed an eternity. But he lived to read the decision on the appeal that had been his last hope.
The “Webster charge,” as it is known, is an astonishing work of literature, art and law. It is musical with repeating p’s and hard c’s, and alliteration. It is balanced, swaying from side to side – first this then that. It speaks of lofty ideas, the mind, the soul, the truth. And it has guaranteed Dr. Webster immortality.