If you have been accused of a criminal offense you likely already know that in order for the prosecutor to obtain a conviction for those charges he/she must present enough evidence to convince a judge or jury of your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is something just about everyone is familiar with in the United States, but what exactly does it mean? If you are a defendant, knowing what it means is clearly important. Toward that end, an Omaha criminal attorney explains what proof beyond a reasonable doubt means and how it affects the prosecution of your case.
Who Bears the Burden in a Criminal Case?
In the United States, an accused is entitled to a number of important rights and protections that are found in the U.S. Constitution. Without a doubt, one of the most important of those rights is the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of that right, the burden is on the prosecution to prove each and every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction. In fact, a defendant in a criminal prosecution is not required to present a defense at all. If the state cannot meet the burden of proof, the defendant should not be convicted of the charges against him/her.
Standards of Proof
In the U.S., the civil court system handles civil matters and disputes such as contract disputes, claims of injury to your person or property, or family law matters. The criminal court system prosecutes individuals accused of violating a criminal law. Different “standards of proof” are used for different types of legal matters. In the U.S., there are three common standards of proof, including preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Both preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing evidence are used predominantly in civil litigation. Preponderance of the evidence is usually explained as evidence that reaches the 51 percent mark, or that makes it more likely than not. Clear and convincing evidence is the next level of proof and requires proof that it is “highly probable” that the thing that allegedly happened did, in fact, occur. That brings us to the final standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Does Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Mean?
Despite the fact that the State has been required to use the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for a very long time, a universally accepted definition for what the standard means remains elusive. Scholars, judges, and lawyers have been arguing over how to explain the standard for as long as it has existed. It requires the highest level of proof because of the desire to avoid convicting innocent people of crimes they did not commit. As a famous English jurist once said “”It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” One way to think of the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard is in mathematical terms by saying it requires you to be 99 percent certain the defendant did what he/she is accused of doing. If you are charged with securing a conviction, however, you would stress the fact that the standard does not require the complete absence of doubt. On the other hand, if you are on the side trying to avoid a conviction, you would stress the need to be certain of the defendant’s guilt before convicting by focusing what a high standard of proof that is required of the State.
In practice, judges try to explain the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard using standard jury instructions; however, you will hear a different “standard” jury instruction in almost every jurisdiction. Moreover, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney will most certainly try to educate the jury about the concept as well by using very different examples and definitions. Ultimately, the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard is intended to only lead to a conviction when the evidence presented leads to no other reasonable conclusion.
Contact an Omaha Criminal Attorney at Petersen Law Office
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the State of Nebraska, consult with an experienced Nebraska criminal attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are protected. In Nebraska contact Petersen Criminal Defense Law 24 hours a day at 402-509-8070 to discuss your case.