In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We’ve all heard this phrase before. But what does it actually mean?
What does the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?
In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the prosecution’s “burden of proof” in the case. This means that the prosecution must convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation. If the jury has even one reasonable doubt, that is enough to prevent a guilty verdict.
The burden of proof that prosecutors have in criminal cases is much higher than the burden for plaintiffs in civil cases. In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of evidence. This means that they must show it is more likely than not the truth. That is, they must convince the jury by more than 50%. But, in a criminal case, that “more likely than not” standard is not enough. Instead, the jury must have no reasonable doubts about the defendant’s guilt.
This doesn’t mean that the prosecutor must prove guilt with 100% certainty, though. Instead, the prosecutor must only prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Some jurors may have unreasonable doubts about a defendant’s guilt based on movies and TV shoes. But, to convict, a jury must only believe the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
How do courts explain the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard?
If you’re having trouble understanding exactly how the standard applies, you’re not alone. Many lawyers and even judges struggle with the concept in court.
For example, in Payne v. Stansberry, a 2014 case out of Washington, D.C., the judge gave a horrible instruction. “If you find that the Government has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, every element of the offense with which these defendants, or this defendant is charged, it’s your duty to find that defendant guilty.” “On the other hand,” the judge continued, “if you find that the Government has failed to prove any element of the offense, beyond a reasonable doubt, you must find that defendant guilty.“
Taken together, the judge in the Payne v. Strawberry case told the jury it had to find the defendant guilty in two scenarios. First, if the government proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, if the government did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. See the problem? The judge instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty no matter what. It may well have been the case that the judge misspoke or that the court transcript had a mistake. But, for the federal appeals court, the mistake was bad enough that the defendant deserved a new trial.
The Payne v. Strawberry case is only one example of many. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is one of the most important parts of our criminal justice system. But courts still explain it in a confusing way all the time. This confusion often makes it easier for prosecutors to convict people than it should be. A good lawyercan help you determine whether a judge’s instructions were fair in your case.