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OCCAM’S RAZOR

 

A defendant was charged with three separate armed robberies. The three victims all identified the defendant in a “six-pack” photographic lineup. In closing arguments at the jury trial, the defense attorney questioned the correctness of the identifications. The prosecution rebutted, stating that there were three victims who identified the defendant separately at different times. Referencing what the prosecutor called a “fancy expression” known as Occam’s Razor, the prosecutor argued that the reasonable doubt standard requires that the obvious answer is the best answer.

Occam’s Razor is a term that that refers to a problem-solving principle. Simply put, the principle states that when faced with competing hypotheses, the simpler one is the best one. The more assumptions that must be made to explain a hypothesis, the less likely that hypothesis is the correct one.

In the case of the armed robber, the defense argued that the victims misidentified the defendant in the photographic lineups. But implicit in the prosecutor’s statement was that it would require more assumptions to accept that conclusion than it would to conclude that each of the victims, by separately identifying the same person (the defendant) in the photographic lineup, correctly identified the defendant.

The defendant was convicted on all three charges. He appealed. His grounds for the appeal was that the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by comparing Occam’s Razor to the reasonable doubt standard. While the appellate court noted that it is not entirely accurate to state that Occam’s Razor stands for the principle that the “obvious answer is the best answer,” it is close enough and that it was a fair characterization of the reasonable doubt standard.

Some defendants come up with wild explanations or alibis for the charges against them that make no sense. Many of these explanations are outlandish and require ridiculous assumptions. For example, a defendant claimed he was a werewolf and it was a full moon. Still another defendant claimed that a bag of marijuana was actually salad greens. Another defendant explained that he was sleepwalking when he committed the crime. And here’s a good one: the crime wasn’t actually a crime; the defendant was just method acting. Employing Occam’s Razor, we can say that all these explanations require more assumptions than the simple one: that the defendant committed the crime.

But it is not always that straightforward. For example, that “sleepwalking defense” just may be true. In fact, there are several well-known cases where the defendant was acquitted of murder on the grounds that the defendant sleeping when he or she committed the offense. Now, using the Occam’s Razor principle, we might surmise guilt when a sleeping man in a hotel lobby was roused by a porter, shot the porter and repeatedly yelled “Hoo-wee!” and then told a witness that he shot a man. This is a classic sleepwalking case that went to trial in Kentucky in 1846. The defendant maintained that he shot the porter while he was sleeping and the appellate court apparently agreed, reversing the trial court’s conviction, based on the defendant’s history of sleepwalking, which was excluded at the jury trial.

Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has served the Orange County community for 25 years. If you have been charged with a crime, whether you are a werewolf or simply a human being, you can contact Attorney Weinberg for a complimentary consultation regarding your matter. He may be reached by calling his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.