Because the potential consequences of a criminal conviction are so serious, the U.S. Constitution requires the government to meet a high standard of proof to secure a criminal conviction. This requirement protects the accused against wrongful convictions. What is the standard of proof in a criminal case?
Standard of Proof in a Criminal Case
The U.S. Constitution guarantees people accused of crimes the presumption of innocence. Because of this, the burden of proof is on the state in a criminal case.
Defendants are not required to prove their innocence. Instead, the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. If the state fails to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the court requires the judge or jury to return a verdict of “not guilty.”
What Is the Burden of Proof?
The burden of proof refers to which party must convince the fact finder that a proposition is true. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof falls on the government. In a civil trial, the plaintiff has the burden of proof.
The burden of proof consists of two related concepts. The burden of production describes a party’s obligation to present sufficient evidence to support a proposition of fact. In a criminal case, if the government fails to meet the burden of production, the judge may dismiss the case before it goes to trial.
The burden of persuasion describes the degree to which the state must convince the judge or jury that a particular fact is true. In the case of a criminal trial, the state must convince the judge or jury that the facts are true beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Does Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Mean?
To prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the government must convince the judge or jury that no reasonable explanation other than the defendant’s guilt exists. It is up to the judge or jury to decide whether the state met this burden.
Because what is reasonable is subject to interpretation, different jury members may have different ideas about what is a reasonable belief. In general, the court instructs the jury members to make their decision based on what they believe a reasonable person would do.
Because the burden of proof specifies reasonable doubts, the state does not have to prove its case beyond any doubt. For example, the state would not have to prove that the defendant’s identical twin did not commit the crime if the defendant had no siblings. Most people would not consider the belief that the defendant could have a previously unknown identical twin who could have committed the crime to be reasonable.
Reasonable doubts should have a connection to evidence or a lack of evidence, rather than emotions, sympathies or prejudices. It is for this reason that attorneys often dismiss jurors who they believe can’t evaluate the evidence impartially.
What Is the Presumption of Innocence?
The presumption of innocence means that the justice system must consider all people accused of crimes to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence helps maintain public trust in the justice system. Without it, judges and juries would be able to decide that defendants are guilty before they hear any evidence based on accusations, media coverage or personal biases.
Difference Between a Criminal Trial and a Civil Trial
Criminal cases involve crimes against the state. Civil cases settle disputes between private parties. The primary differences between a civil case and a criminal case are the standard of proof, the stakes and procedures.
Standard of Proof
In most civil cases, the standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence. This means that plaintiffs must prove their claims are more likely to be true than not.
In a criminal trial, a jury member who thinks a defendant is more likely to have committed a crime than not, but has reasonable doubts should return a verdict of not guilty. However, in a civil case, more likely than not is good enough to decide in favor of the plaintiff.
In some civil trials, such as criminally related matters like fraud, the burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence. This is a higher standard than a preponderance of the evidence, but lower than beyond a reasonable doubt.
In most civil cases, the consequences of losing a case involve money. While having to pay a large monetary settlement can have serious consequences, it isn’t as high as the stakes in a criminal trial.
Criminal convictions can result in prison sentences, fines, community service, the requirement to complete rehabilitation or counseling and for the most serious crimes, loss of life. A criminal conviction can make obtaining housing, employment or credit more difficult and in some cases, leads to the loss of civil rights, such as the right to vote, serve on a jury or own a firearm. The high stakes of criminal convictions are part of the reason why the burden of proof is higher for criminal trials.
Juries decide most criminal trials and the U.S. Constitution guarantees all criminal defendants the right to a trial by jury. Some civil trials involve juries, but many times a judge decides the outcome. Additionally, while everyone accused of a crime has the right to have an attorney represent them, that right does not exist for civil trials.
Role of the Defense
Defendants do not have to try to prove their innocence. They can opt to allow the jury to decide whether the government met its burden without any input from the defense.
In most cases, the defense will present evidence that it believes proves the defendant could not have committed the crime or that introduces reasonable doubt. For example, suppose the government charged a defendant with stabbing a person in front of a specific liquor store at a specific time. In that case, the defense may introduce evidence that proves the defendant was at another location when the crime happened.
The defense does not have to prove that the defendant couldn’t have committed the crime to win the case, but if it can convince the jury of this fact, the jury may decide that enough reasonable doubt exists to return a not-guilty verdict. If the defense can’t prove that the defendant couldn’t have committed the crime, it may instead introduce evidence that exposes flaws in the government’s case.
For example, suppose the prosecution presented evidence alleging that the wounds the stabbing victim has are consistent with the type of wound a knife owned by the defendant would make. In that case, the defense may counter with evidence showing that the knife could not make that type of wound or that the wounds are consistent with many types of knives.
Sometimes the defense may assert an affirmative defense, such as self-defense. When this happens, the burden shifts to the defense to prove that the affirmative defense is true.
How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
Criminal defense attorneys know the law and procedures of the court. The experienced criminal defense attorneys at The Jeffcoat Firm will protect your rights, investigate the facts of your case and formulate a defense strategy to ensure you receive a fair trial and the government can’t obtain a conviction without meeting its burden of proof. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.