What Is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
September 20th, 2023
The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a cornerstone of the American legal system. If you’ve ever watched a legal drama on TV, you know the prosecutor must prove the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what, exactly, is this legal standard, and what does it mean?
Together with the presumption of innocence, it is intended to ensure that only people who are truly guilty are convicted of a crime. To find a defendant guilty in a criminal case, each juror must believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime of which they are accused.
Presumption of Innocence
In a criminal case, the prosecutor represents the government, which is claiming the defendant violated a law. But just because the government says a crime occurred does not necessarily mean it is so. In the United States, criminal defendants are presumed innocent until the prosecution has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are guilty of what they are accused of.
Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Is the Highest Burden of Proof
In practice, it can be difficult to precisely define proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Often, it is easiest to compare the three burdens of proof the American legal system recognizes:
- Preponderance of the evidence – is the lowest standard of proof. It applies in civil cases and means a judge or jury thinks it is slightly more likely that something happened than not. At trial, lawyers may ask the jury to imagine two stacks of paper with the same number of pages in each stack. If a single sheet of paper is added to one of the stacks, that is a preponderance of the evidence.
- Clear and convincing evidence – is the middle standard of proof. It is more than a preponderance but less than proof beyond reasonable doubt. If someone must present clear and convincing evidence to prove their case, they must show that it is highly likely and substantially probable that a fact in question occurred. Clear and convincing evidence is often required in administrative cases, like when a prisoner is seeking habeas corpus from capital punishment.
- Beyond a reasonable doubt – is the highest standard of proof. It does not mean the absence of doubt. Instead, it means there is no plausible reason to believe that something occurred in a different way. If, after hearing all the evidence, there is a real doubt about whether someone did the thing they are accused of doing, the burden of proof has not been met. Put another way, the prosecution must show that there is no logical explanation other than that the defendant committed the crime.
Who Has the Burden of Proof?
The prosecution bears the burden of proof in a criminal case. They must convince the jury that a criminal offense occurred and that it happened the way they think it did.
Although the defendant can call witnesses and present evidence, they do not need to prove they are innocent. In fact, a defendant does not need to prove anything at trial. Some criminal defense lawyers will point out that they could go through an entire trial without calling a single witness or presenting a single piece of evidence and, at the end of the trial, the jury could find the defendant Not Guilty because the prosecutor failed to meet their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
How Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Show Reasonable Doubt?
A criminal defense lawyer will employ various strategies to discredit the prosecution and show that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the crime occurred the way the prosecutor claims it did. Common strategies to cast doubt upon the prosecution’s evidence include:
- Exposing errors during the arrest or investigative process;
- Challenging the credibility of a witness;
- Highlighting discrepancies between witness statements;
- Showing the defendant had an alibi;
- Presenting evidence of self-defense or defense of others; or
- Establishing that the defendant was falsely accused.
Reasonable Doubt, Reasonable Suspicion, and Probable Cause
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is different from reasonable suspicion and probable cause. All three standards apply in criminal cases, but they apply at different times.
To place someone under arrest, police must have both reasonable suspicion and probable cause. While the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause is slight, it is very important and can have significant implications if you have been charged with a crime.
- To stop a person and detain them, police must have reasonable suspicion to believe a crime occurred. The officer must be able to identify the facts and circumstances that create a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred.
- Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion and empowers a police officer to make an arrest, search a person or property, or obtain a warrant. To establish probable cause, a police officer must be able to identify specific facts that form the basis for the reasonable belief that a crime has occurred.
The Stowe Law Firm, PLLC: Aggressive Criminal Defense in North Carolina
If you have been charged with a crime in North Carolina, experienced legal representation is crucial. North Carolina criminal defense attorney Ryan Stowe staunchly defends people accused of committing crimes. He will protect your rights by holding the prosecution to the highest standard of proof and will require that they prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.
We invite you to learn more about the attorneys at Stowe Law Firm and the cases we’ve worked on. Then contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.
Categories: Criminal Defense Lawyers