What Does Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt Mean?
The requirement of proof beyond any reasonable doubt, which is included in your right to a trial by a jury of your peers, is, in my opinion, the most important right that we are given in the Constitution.
But, it’s useless if the jurors in your trial don’t understand it or don’t apply it to the facts of your case. Most people, as they are sitting in the jury box waiting for the trial to start, have already decided that you are probably guilty – otherwise, why would the police and prosecutors have you sitting there in the defendant’s chair?
So, how do you explain reasonable doubt to jurors?
Other Standards of Proof
In different courtrooms and in different types of cases, we use several different standards of proof. To understand reasonable doubt, it’s critical to understand the other standards of proof to put “beyond any reasonable doubt” into context.
The other standards of proof that we use in the U.S. include:
A Scintilla of Evidence
A scintilla of evidence is the lowest standard of proof that I can think of – it’s a mere suspicion. A scintilla of evidence is never enough to convict a person of a crime.
A reasonable suspicion is enough evidence for a police officer to pull over your car, write a ticket, and run a license check before letting you go on your way.
It’s enough evidence for an officer to pat you down or to look in your car if the officer suspects that you have a weapon. A reasonable suspicion, however, is not enough to charge a person with a crime, much less convict them.
Probable cause is enough evidence for a police officer to fully search you and go into your pockets. It’s enough for an officer to thoroughly search your vehicle, or to get an arrest warrant for a suspected crime.
Probable cause is enough evidence for a grand jury to indict a person for a suspected crime –in trial, we could say, “it’s enough to get you here, but it’s never enough to convict a person of a crime.”
Preponderance of the evidence
Preponderance of the evidence is the standard of proof that we use in civil cases. It means “more likely than not,” or greater than 50%.
In a civil case, if one side’s evidence weighs even slightly more than the other, that’s who the jury should side with. In trial, we could say, “if all we were fighting about here today was money, preponderance of the evidence would be the standard of proof,” but it’s never enough to convict a person of a crime.
Clear and Convincing Evidence
Clear and convincing evidence is the standard of proof that we use in termination of parental rights cases. If the state is going to take your children away from you for the rest of your life, they must prove that you are an unfit parent by clear and convincing evidence.
Clear and convincing evidence is not even enough to convict a person of a crime.
Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt
Beyond any reasonable doubt is the strictest standard of proof in any kind of case in any courtroom. We use it in every criminal case in our country, because of the high stakes involved in criminal cases – reputation, loss of employment, property, freedom, and, in some cases, your life. So, what does reasonable doubt mean?
The courts will give a jury instruction at the end of each criminal trial that explains reasonable doubt and should include:
“A reasonable doubt is any doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act. It’s a doubt for which you could give a reason.”
How do You Explain Reasonable Doubt to Jurors?
There are many ways to explain reasonable doubt to jurors – for example, the above information about the different standards of proof should be explained to jurors in every criminal trial – if you don’t tell them, they won’t know…
Another way to explain reasonable doubt is to apply the facts of your case to the definition. It’s a doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act – fact A from your case would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act. Fact B from your case would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act, etc.
Effective story-telling is a wonderful way to connect with people, and there are several short stories that criminal defense lawyers tell to illustrate reasonable doubt for jurors – you can tell one of these tried and true reasonable doubt stories, or, even better, craft a brand-new story that relates to the facts of your individual case.
H/T the Trial Theory blog, where you can also find a few examples of reasonable doubt stories…
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If you have been charged with a crime in the Charleston area, call SC criminal defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.