What is Reasonable Doubt

Reasonable doubt is the standard of proof that must be exceeded to secure a conviction in a criminal case. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” means that the evidence presented and arguments put forth by the prosecutor in a criminal case establishes the defendant’s guilt to such an extent that a reasonable person could have no reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused. If the judge or jury has a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt, the defendant cannot be convicted.

Reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof used in court, and is used exclusively in criminal cases because a criminal conviction could deprive the defendant of liberty or even life.

BREAKING DOWN Reasonable Doubt

Compared with reasonable doubt, civil cases require a much lower standard of proof. “Preponderance of evidence” means that one side has more evidence in its favor than the other; one side can prevail with as little as 51% probability that the evidence presented by it is true. “Clear and convincing evidence” is evidence that establishes a high probability that the facts presented by one party are true; it is a higher standard than preponderance of evidence.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the reasonable doubt standard of proof is based on “a fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.” Since the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in numerous cases, the defense has successfully established alternative theories that sound plausible enough to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury about the defendant’s guilt. As a result, a case that may appear to be a slam-dunk for the prosecution not infrequently results in an acquittal.

Example of the Concept of Reasonable Doubt

The 1995 O.J. Simpson case provides a good example of the concept of reasonable doubt in practice. Simpson was accused of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. There was a substantial amount of incriminating evidence against Simpson, including his DNA at the crime scene, blood in his car and eyewitnesses. To counter this mountain of evidence, Simpson assembled a legal “Dream Team” that set about trying to create doubts in the jurors’ minds about his guilt.

One of the highlights of the trial occurred in the courtroom when Simpson tried on the bloody leather glove that was found at the murder scene, and showed his hand could not fit into it. In his closing arguments, lead defense counsel Johnnie Cochrane famously declared that “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” He also listed 15 points of reasonable doubt in the case. After less than four days of deliberations, the jury found Simpson not guilty on both counts of murder. However, a year later, the families of both victims filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Simpson. Based on the lower “Preponderance of Evidence” standard of proof, the jury found Simpson liable for the deaths and awarded the families $8.5 million in damages.