Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Defined

Courtroom And Gavel — Beyond a Reasonable Doubt concept

The Constitution protects every criminal defendant by declaring that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. And in order to be proven guilty, the State must prove each and every element beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the State’s burden of carrying this burden of proof. While most people understand this principle, few understand the definition of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ and how this works in practice. So let’s dive in.

Before getting the definition, running over the different burdens of proof can help provide some context. In civil cases, the burden of proof is ‘preponderance of the evidence.’ Whoever is obligated to prove its case, must do so by a preponderance. This only requires proving that something is more likely than not to have happened. Numerically, it is often considered to be 51+%. The next burden of proof is ‘clear and convincing evidence.’ This is the burden used in some civil and even a few criminal procedures. In order to clear this hurdle, it is often considered 75+% or so. Finally, beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest, most difficult burden of proof under the law. While not an exact science, this is thought of as being 98-99%. Now with that background, let’s review the definition and how it plays out in trial.

At the close of trial, the judge will instruct the jury with the following definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt”:

It requires such proof as ordinarily prudent men and women like you would act upon in their most important affairs. A reasonable doubt is a doubt based upon reason and common sense. It does not mean a fanciful or capricious doubt, nor does it mean beyond all possibility of doubt.

With that definition in mind, putting it into practice effectively can make the difference between the defendant being convicted or acquitted. And this is where the North Star criminal defense lawyers thrive.

Putting ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ into context for the jurors to understand is critical. We often try to place the jurors in a specific situation that gets them thinking about what is required to know beyond a reasonable doubt. For instance, buying a new car, moving residences, making a career decision – are all important affairs in a person’s life. But, the most important affair – that is when a loved one is in the hospital facing a critical surgery. In that situation, every person is gathering all the information they can before deciding. Scrutinizing the information, asking follow-up questions, and even possibly getting a second opinion. And only after deciding – beyond a reasonable doubt – that surgery is the best course of action will they act on it. That is the level of analysis and confidence in a decision needed for the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard.

We have found that providing this sort of context helps a jury truly understand the importance of their decision in the jury room and what is needed for the State to carry this burden of proof before finding the defendant guilty. Beyond a reasonable doubt needs to be exactly what it is in the law – the highest burden of proof and one that demands the surest proof there is before a defendant’s presumption of innocence is overcome.