Putting someone in jail requires the highest level of proof: Reasonable Doubt
If you watch the news or are a fan of courtroom dramas, then you’re probably somewhat familiar with the concept of the standard, “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” When a criminal defendant faces charges, the state’s prosecutor must prove the defendant is guilty, and he or she must pass a high hurdle in doing so.
The prosecutor doesn’t have such a burden because we want the guilty to go free, of course. Instead, this is because the state is taking away an individual’s freedom and good name, and we don’t want that to happen without our being as sure as possible that the person committed the crime.
By no means is this a perfect system: the innocent get put in prison and the guilty go free at times. But most developed countries incorporate similar burdens on their prosecutors to gain a conviction.
Questions Answered on This Page:
- What exactly is reasonable doubt?
- How does reasonable doubt work in a personal injury case?
- What does reasonable doubt mean under Texas law?
How reasonable doubt plays out in practice isn’t straightforward in the way you may think:
Before a prosecutor files charges, he or she should be fairly confident that even when the inevitable cross-examination of the state’s witnesses and evidence happens by the criminal defendant’s attorney, there is more than enough evidence to convict the defendant. Courts and commentators disagree, strangely enough, about how to actually define “reasonable doubt” for the jury.
But at the end, judges and lawyers typically define it as “having no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.” It is perhaps most easily explained what it is not. Civil cases—like personal injury claims or contract disputes—mostly involve the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is calculated to be roughly 51 to 49. To have someone involuntarily committed to a mental institution, the state must pass the “clear and convincing” standard, which is elevated, but less than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
However it is defined, if a juror in a criminal case merely believes that criminal is “more likely than not” guilty, the juror must vote to acquit the defendant. If the juror strongly suspects that the defendant is guilty, he still must vote to acquit. Only if he’s convinced that the defendant actually committed the crime can a juror vote to convict.Not a Moment to Waste The importance of a prompt investigation...Read More >
Examples of how jurors can apply reasonable doubt …
To illustrate by way of example, let’s assume Bob Smith is on trial for theft. He’s been accused of robbing a liquor store in Dallas. The jurors could weigh the evidence against the Bob in the following ways:
- Several witnesses claim to know Bob and to have seen him go into the liquor store and leave with money and a gun in hand. This is the only evidence introduced at trial. The witnesses, upon cross-examination by Bob’s lawyer, admit that they’ve both written dozens of bad checks and cheated on their taxes in the past. Even if Bob doesn’t put any evidence on as to his innocence, the jurors could chose to nonetheless believe the witnesses and convict Bob, or, because the witnesses’ honesty is in question, refuse to convict.
- After the state and Bob put on their witnesses and evidence, the jurors retire to the jury room. They all suspect Bob did it, but they’re not completely sure. Bob’s witnesses seemed somewhat credible, as did Bob, that he was somewhere else entirely when the crime occurred. They must acquit him since there’s some doubt about his involvement in the alleged crime.
- The prosecutor doesn’t offer testimony or witnesses, but simply asks the jury to look at the defendant and decide if they think he did it. The jury must acquit Bob since the state put on no evidence at all.
As you can tell, it comes down to whether there is evidence, and whether the jury chooses to believe it and believe it completely. That’s what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means.
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