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Citing the wedding dilemma of Katharine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Oklahoma federal court erred in failing to grant the habeas petition of a scorned lover convicted of manslaughter. The appeals court found fault with a state trial judge’s use of doubt about getting married in response to a potential juror’s question about the meaning of “reasonable doubt.” Wansing v. Hargett, No. 01-7163 (Aug. 29, 2003). The case involved the death of a man named Tim Johnson, who began dating his ex-boss’s ex-girlfriend, and got control of the ex-boss’s business, which was in her name. The ex-boss, Roman Wansing, shot and killed him. Wansing was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter. During voir dire, a prospective juror asked for the definition of reasonable doubt. The judge said Oklahoma law prohibited jury instructions on that subject. But he said that early in his career a federal judge told a jury that reasonable doubt was the kind that might cause one to cancel a wedding at the last minute. The judge said that some people might cancel if they had the slightest doubt, while others might go through with it even with doubts. “The fact of the matter was that reasonable doubt is a subjective matter,” he said. “Only you can decide what is reasonable, in the light and under the circumstances of each individual case.” After exhausting his state appeals, Wansing petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the judge’s remarks raised the possibility that jurors would think reasonable doubt meant “doubt sufficient to abandon a betrothed at the altar.” A federal judge denied the petition. The 10th Circuit reversed. Judge Michael W. McConnell opened his opinion by recalling that in the 1940 movie, Katharine Hepburn “calls off her impending marriage to a man she has come to despise.” The question in the Wansing case, he said, was whether the wedding comparison provided “so flawed an analogy to the degree of certitude required to convict a defendant of manslaughter” that a verdict influenced by it must be overturned. “The judge’s remarks,” McConnell wrote, “made it reasonably likely that the jury would overestimate the amount of latitude it had in defining the reasonable doubt standard.”

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