“Beyond a reasonable doubt”: How juries get it wrong

The famed author and public intellectual has a bone to pick with the American legal system.

Richard Dawkins: In Science in the Soul I have a chapter on reasonable doubt and it’s about, of course, the phrase. “Reasonable doubt” comes up in courts of law where juries are told that they must convict somebody, say a murder, only if it’s beyond reasonable doubt that they are guilty. 

And that sounds all very good, it should be beyond reasonable doubt, but when you think about the fact that—I think about courtroom dramas, which are so popular on television, for example, and I suspect that this accurately portrays something like what goes on real courtrooms, and I’ve certainly been on three juries myself, there is a note of suspense in the court when the jury comes back, which way will it go? Will it be guilty or not guilty? And then if they say “not guilty,” certain people heave a great sigh of relief. If they say guilty other people do. 

So there is a lot of doubt in the courtroom among people who have sat through the entire trial, the judge for example, the lawyers, the audience sat through the entire trial, as the jury has. 

So if the jury comes in and brings in a verdict that is beyond reasonable doubt, everybody in the court should know that. If it’s beyond reasonable doubt there can be no doubt at which way the jury will jump. And yet when the jury do give their verdict, how can that be if it’s beyond reasonable doubt?

Imagine the following experiment: suppose that you had two juries listening to the same evidence and the two juries are not allowed to talk to each other, they're sent off onto separate jury rooms and they come up with their own separate verdicts, who would bet on the juries coming back with the same verdict every single time? Virtually nobody would. 

If you think about the O.J. Simpson trial, for example, would anybody bet on another jury coming up with the same verdict? 

And yet unless you can bet, unless you can say “yes, they would come up with the same verdict,” you cannot really take the phrase beyond reasonable doubt seriously. 

Now I'm not suggesting that we should have two juries in every trial, I'm just pointing out that the phrase beyond reasonable doubt doesn't actually mean what it says.

Evolutionary biologist and former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University Richard Dawkins has a bone to pick with the U.S. judicial system. Specifically, the phrase "beyond reasonable doubt". He argues that it doesn't mean what it says it means — that two different juries would come to two different verdicts (or perhaps the same verdict but in a different way). Therefore, the phrase loses its power. It's semantics, sure, but when people's lives hang in the balance, Richard argues that we should perhaps take a second look at the phrase. Richard Dawkins' new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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