Beyond any reasonable doubt is the standard of proof used in every criminal courtroom in the United States. Whether the charge is speeding or murder, the state must prove each and every element of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt before a jury can convict.
But what does beyond any reasonable doubt mean? More likely than not? Probably guilty? It is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom in any country around the world, and many jurors will not truly understand the level of proof required unless the defense attorney breaks it down and explains it to them.
One way to explain beyond any reasonable doubt is by placing it into context with other standards of proof that are used in different courtrooms. Another is to explain that jurors are not deciding whether the defendant is innocent – the system only allows us to decide the likelihood that a person is guilty, and, even when it is likely that a person is guilty, jurors must acquit if there is any reasonable doubt.
Finally, jurors must understand that the prosecution has the burden of proving each and every element of a crime, individually, beyond any reasonable doubt.
Standards of Proof: Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt
If the government wants to convict you of a crime, give you a criminal record, take away your privileges and rights, or even take away your freedom, they must prove each and every element of the crime charged beyond any reasonable doubt.
What does that mean?
To place it into context, we can look at the other standards of proof that are used in other types of cases in SC and across the country. For example:
Scintilla of evidence: is not enough to prove anything in any courtroom – it is a mere suspicion, and it is not enough to charge a person with a crime, much less convict them.
Reasonable suspicion: is enough evidence for a police officer to search someone for a weapon if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is armed – it’s enough for an officer to pat you down in what’s called a “Terry frisk,” but it does not rise to the level of probable cause, which would allow the officer to search your pockets or vehicle.
A reasonable suspicion is not enough evidence to even charge a person with a crime.
Probable cause: is enough evidence to charge a person with a crime. It’s also enough evidence for police to search your vehicle or to get a search warrant and enter your home. When the grand jury issues an indictment, which is required before a person can be tried for a crime, they have found probable cause. It is not even close to the level of proof that is required to convict a person, however.
Preponderance of the evidence: is the standard of proof in most civil cases, and it means more likely than not. If you were injured in an automobile accident, you would have to prove that it was more likely than not that the other driver was negligent before you could make them pay damages.
Even if you think it is more likely than not that a person committed a crime, you must find them not guilty.
Clear and convincing evidence: is the standard of proof in cases where the state wants to terminate a person’s parental rights and take their children away permanently. Even this is a lower standard of proof than beyond any reasonable doubt – even if you find that there is clear and convincing evidence of a person’s guilt, you must find them not guilty.
Beyond any reasonable doubt: is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom in the world, and it must be used in every criminal trial in the United States. Why? Because it is better for 100 guilty people to be set free than for one innocent person to be wrongfully locked in prison.
But what is a reasonable doubt? A reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act. It is a doubt for which you can give a reason.
If the unreliability of the state’s star witness causes you to hesitate to act, that’s a reasonable doubt. If the absence of a key witness causes you to hesitate to act, that’s a reasonable doubt. If you suspect space aliens may have committed the crime, that’s probably not a reasonable doubt. But, if you hesitate to act for any reason that is reasonable, you must find the defendant not guilty.
Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: Likelihood of Guilt
In the US, we don’t find defendants “innocent.” That’s just not an option at trial – we only have guilty or not guilty.
Not guilty doesn’t mean innocent – it’s a measure of the likelihood that a person is guilty or innocent, and a guilty verdict requires the highest likelihood although it falls short of absolute certainty.
For example, consider this chart:
|Verdict||Likelihood of Guilt|
|Guilty||Guilt is likely beyond any reasonable doubt|
|Not Guilty||Guilt is highly likely|
|Not Guilty||Guilt is likely|
|Not Guilty||Guilt is probable|
|Not Guilty||Guilt is possible|
|Not Guilty||Guilt is suspected|
|Not Guilty||Innocence is possible|
|Not Guilty||Innocence is probable|
|Not Guilty||Innocence is likely|
|Not Guilty||Innocence is highly likely|
|Not Guilty||Innocence is certain|
Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt as to Every Element of the Crime
It’s not enough to just say, “I’m convinced of the defendant’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.” You must be convinced that the government has proven each and every element of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt.
For example, in a DUI trial, the government must prove that 1) you were driving a motor vehicle, 2) while intoxicated on alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, 3) to the extent that your faculties to drive were materially and appreciably impaired.
If the state proves that you were wasted, stumbling, falling down drunk, and that you blew a .30 on the breathalyzer test, it does not matter unless they also prove beyond any reasonable doubt that you were driving the vehicle. What if you were just sitting in the car listening to the radio? What if someone else was driving but they ran before the police arrived?
If there is any reasonable doubt as to whether you were driving the vehicle, the jury must find you not guilty.
Or, what if the state proves beyond any reasonable doubt that you were driving and that you were intoxicated? Guilty verdict?
Not so fast… it is not against the law to drink and drive in SC. It is against the law to drink and drive when your faculties to drive are materially and appreciably impaired, and the prosecutor must also prove that final element beyond any reasonable doubt.
Criminal Defense Lawyer in Conway, SC
Attorney Johnny Gardner has over twenty years of trial experience defending against criminal charges in SC courtrooms.