What Does Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Mean?
April 16th, 2021
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in the American legal system. Requiring that a prosecutor prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a fundamental concept in American law that is intended to ensure that only people who are truly guilty are convicted of committing a crime.
The idea was first expressed in 1765, when an English judge named William Blackstone wrote, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffers.”
By requiring such a high standard of proof, the American legal system seeks to ensure that only people who are truly guilty are convicted.
But what does proof beyond a reasonable doubt actually mean?
What Is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
To better understand proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it is helpful to consider the three standards of proof that a court can apply.
- A preponderance of the evidence is the lowest burden of proof in the American legal system. It means slightly more than a 50% belief that a fact is true. When explaining the idea of a preponderance of evidence to a jury, trial lawyers often use the idea of two stacks of paper, each with the same number of pages. If one more page is added, this is a preponderance.
- Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediary burden of proof that is similar to showing a 75% likelihood that something occurred.
- Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof. It is applied in criminal cases because the stakes are high and a jury must be thoroughly convinced that the defendant committed the crime he is accused of.
Proving the Defendant Guilty Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The prosecutor, as a representative of the government, is accusing the defendant of having committed a crime. The prosecutor must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did what he is accused of having done.
To do this, the prosecutor will present evidence in the form of witness testimony, surveillance tapes, DNA evidence, and other items that are intended to show that the defendant is guilty.
The judge will instruct the jury to evaluate the evidence and decide whether the prosecution proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did what he is accused of having done.
Constitutional Requirements for Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The guarantee that a defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is set forth in the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Under the Fifth Amendment, someone accused of a crime is protected from “conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.”
While a judge is required to instruct a jury to apply the standard of proof, there is no requirement that the jury be given a quantifiable definition of what reasonable doubt is.
Establishing Reasonable Doubt
To prove someone guilty, the prosecutor does not need to eliminate all doubt. This would be impossible, as only a witness to a crime can declare with absolute certainty that something occurred. However, the prosecutor must convince the jury that, after considering all the evidence, there is only one conclusion and that is that the defendant is guilty.
To argue for a Not Guilty verdict, a criminal defense attorney will emphasize the fact that the defendant does not need to prove anything. In fact, a defendant could go through an entire trial without calling a single witness or presenting a shred of evidence and, after the prosecution rests, argue that the prosecutor failed to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Of course, an experienced criminal defense attorney would never do this. But the explanation is useful to make the point that, in a criminal trial, the defendant does not need to prove a thing.
To show to the jury that there is doubt about the defendant’s guilt, a good criminal defense attorney will remind the jury that witnesses can lie, photographic evidence can be faked, and DNA samples can be mishandled or become tainted. Other than a confession, most evidence is circumstantial. An experienced criminal defense attorney can use these facts to establish reasonable doubt in the mind of a juror.
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