In criminal law, the prosecution must be able to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In this article, we’ll explain what the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” means, contrast it with other standards of proof, and offer an example.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a legal term referring to a burden of proof required to make a conviction in a criminal case. In criminal law, the burden of proof falls on the prosecution to prove the defendant is guilty - beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the prosecution must convince a jury that there is no other reasonable explanation that can be concluded from the evidence presented at trial other than that the defendant is guilty. As a consequence, juries must be almost entirely sure that a defendant is guilty in order to give a guilty verdict.
Reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof used in any court of law. The defendant can't be convicted if the jury has reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. This is because a criminal conviction has severe consequences, and finding somebody guilty when they are innocent is considered to be worse than finding somebody innocent who is guilty.
The concept of reasonable doubt is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but it is derived from the idea of being considered innocent until proven guilty.
The exact definition of reasonable doubt is debated, and there are multiple working definitions in use. In fact, multiple appellate courts have cautioned trial judges specifically not to explain the reasonable doubt standard to juries, leading to a lack of clarity on the exact definition of the term.
Definitions of reasonable doubt include:
The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof contrasts with the standard of proof in civil law, which is much lower. In civil law, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, there must be a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a certainty of greater than 50 percent.
Additionally, in several U.S. states, there is a standard called “clear and convincing evidence,” in which jurors must conclude that there is a high likelihood that the facts of the case as presented by one side represent the truth. This is used in some civil cases and some aspects of a criminal case, such as whether a defendant is fit to stand trial.
One very high-profile example of the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial. There was a significant amount of incriminating evidence suggesting that Simpson may have murdered his ex-wife and her friend, including his DNA at the crime scene.
However, Simpson’s legal team focused on proving that there was reasonable doubt. Of 15 points of reasonable doubt, the most famous was the demonstration that Simpson’s hand could not fit into a bloody glove found on the property. Lead defense Counselman Johnnie Cochran declared, “If it does not fit, you must acquit,” referencing the concept of reasonable doubt. As a result, the jury found Simpson not guilty.
It is worth noting that one year later, the victims’ families filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson. In a civil lawsuit, the standard of proof was not “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but rather “a preponderance of the evidence.” Because of this lighter standard, the jury found Simpson liable for the deaths.