One of the pillars of our justice system in America is that no person can be convicted of a crime unless the government proves beyond any reasonable doubt that they are guilty of the crime.
But what does reasonable doubt mean? How do you explain “beyond any reasonable doubt” to a jury of 12 people who may have never been in a courtroom before?
What’s the Difference Between the Burden of Proof and the Standard of Proof?
First, what is the difference between the “burden of proof” and the “standard of proof?”
The Burden of Proof is on the Prosecutor
The burden of proof just means, “who has the burden of proving the allegations in a case?” In a criminal case, the burden of proof is always on the prosecutor – the defendant never has to prove their innocence.
The burden of proof is not only always on the prosecutor, but the defendant also has a presumption of innocence – the court will usually tell the jurors something like, “the presumption of innocence is like a robe of righteousness place about the shoulders of the defendant, and it remains with him unless and until that presumptive robe of righteousness has been stripped from his body by evidence satisfying you of that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In civil cases, as in criminal cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to establish the allegations against the defendant – the standard of proof, however, is very different in a criminal case than in a civil case.
Standard of Proof – Beyond any Reasonable Doubt
People often use “burden of proof” and “standard of proof” interchangeably, but they mean two different things.
The standard of proof refers to the degree of proof that is required to convict a person (or to find a person is liable in a civil case) – do we need a lot of proof or is a little enough? Is it enough that it is more likely than not, or do we need something more than 50/50 to rule in one side’s favor?
The standard of proof in every criminal case is beyond any reasonable doubt – it is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom anywhere in the world, and, if we are not effectively explaining what this means to jurors in every trial, we are not effectively representing our clients.
Beyond any Reasonable Doubt – How do You Explain it?
How do you explain reasonable doubt to jurors?
If a defense lawyer is not putting reasonable doubt into context – explaining the different standards of proof that are required in different types of cases – to show jurors why beyond any reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom in the world, they are committing malpractice in my opinion.
It works best with visual aids – a projector or a flipchart, for example, but a defense attorney should at a minimum go through the following standards of proof with every jury in every criminal case:
- A scintilla of evidence is a mere suspicion of crime – a scintilla of evidence is not enough evidence to charge a person, much less convict them.
- Reasonable suspicion is enough evidence for a police officer to do a “Terry frisk” if they suspect you have a weapon, but it’s not enough evidence to go into your pockets or search your property. It’s not enough evidence to charge a person with a crime, much less convict them.
- Probable cause is enough evidence to charge a person with a crime, or for a police officer to search a person’s property. It’s enough evidence for a grand jury to indict a person – it’s enough evidence to bring a person to trial, but it’s not enough to convict a person.
- Preponderance of the evidence is enough evidence to find liability in a car wreck case or most civil cases. It means that it’s more likely than not that a person committed the crime, or one side’s evidence weighs even slightly more than the other’s – 51%. Even if it is more likely than not that a person committed a crime, you must find them not guilty.
- Clear and convincing evidence is the standard of proof in SC to award punitive damages in a civil case or to terminate a person’s parental rights in the family court. The standard of proof to permanently take your children away from you – clear and convincing evidence – is not enough evidence to convict a person of a crime in our country.
- Beyond any reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom anywhere in the world – this is the standard of proof in every criminal case in our country, whether you are charged with speeding or murder because we must be sure before we take away a person’s freedom, put them in prison, and brand them as a criminal for the rest of their life.
Reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would a reasonable person to hesitate to act. It’s a doubt for which you could give a reason.
If there are reasons in this case that make you hesitate – the lying snitch that the prosecutor put on the witness stand, the lack of DNA evidence, or the unidentified DNA that doesn’t match our client, for example, that is a reasonable doubt, and you must find our client not guilty.
When the prosecutor asks you to return a verdict of guilty, and you hesitate as you think about the phone records that placed our client at home in his bed at the time of the crime, that is a reasonable doubt, and you must find our client not guilty.
Criminal Defense Lawyers in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, SC
The criminal defense attorneys at the Thompson & Hiller Defense Firm focus exclusively on criminal defense cases in SC. We have obtained dismissals, pre-trial diversion resulting in dismissals, or acquittals following trial in hundreds of criminal cases, and we have a record of proven results.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC or if you think you may be under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or contact us through our website for a free initial consultation to find out if we can help