What Is Reasonable Doubt?
Reasonable doubt is legal terminology referring to insufficient evidence that prevents a judge or jury from convicting a defendant of a crime. It is the traditional standard of proof that must be exceeded to secure a guilty verdict in a criminal case in a court of law.
In a criminal case, it is the job of the prosecution to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged and, therefore, should be convicted. The phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" means that the evidence presented and the arguments put forward by the prosecution establish the defendant's guilt so clearly that they must be accepted as fact by any rational person.
If the jury cannot say with certainty based on the evidence presented that the defendant is guilty, then there is reasonable doubt and they are obligated to return a non-guilty verdict.
- Reasonable doubt is insufficient evidence that prevents a judge or jury from convicting a defendant of a crime.
- If it cannot be proved without a doubt that a defendant in a criminal case is guilty, then that person should not be convicted.
- Each juror must walk into the courtroom presuming the accused is innocent and it is the job of the prosecutor to convince them otherwise.
- Reasonable doubt is used exclusively in criminal cases because the consequences of a conviction are severe.
- Other commonly used standards of proof in criminal cases are probable cause, reasonable belief and reasonable suspicion, and credible evidence.
Understanding Reasonable Doubt
Under U.S. law, a defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty. Reasonable doubt stems from insufficient evidence. If it cannot be proved without a doubt that the defendant is guilty, that person should not be convicted. Verdicts do not necessarily reflect the truth, they reflect the evidence presented. A defendant’s actual innocence or guilt may be an abstraction.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof used in any court of law and is widely accepted around the world. It is used exclusively in criminal cases because the consequences of a conviction are severe—a criminal conviction could deprive the defendant of liberty or even life.
The concept of reasonable doubt is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution. However, one of the basic principles of the U.S. legal system is that it is worse to convict an innocent person than to let a guilty person go free. The person charged is considered innocent until proven guilty. As such, the burden of proof falls upon the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required only in criminal cases because the potential penalties are severe.
Difference Between Belief And Certainty
It isn't unusual for a juror to believe that the defendant is a criminal but not be convinced with certainty that they committed the particular crime they are charged with. That isn't good enough to find the defendant guilty.
Reasonable doubt comes from certainty rather than belief. Belief and instinct are important in many instances in life but cannot be used to convict a defendant if not based on fact.
The reasonable doubt standard forces jurors to ignore doubts considered unreasonable when determining if a defendant is guilty. Unreasonable doubt, which often stems from the possibility that nonexistent or unpresented evidence might explain a defendant's actions and lead to exoneration, is not enough to acquit the defendant.
Evidence favorable to the defendant in a criminal trial can also create reasonable doubt as to whether the accused committed the crime. The defendant's team should not be viewed with more skepticism than the prosecutor's team. Each shred of evidence should be given the same consideration. This is important as any reasonable doubt, however small, that the defendant did not do it is grounds for an acquittal.
Other Standards of Proof
Other commonly used standards of proof in criminal cases are:
- Probable Cause: A requirement found in the Fourth Amendment that the police have more than just suspicion that a suspect committed a crime before making an arrest, conducting a search, or serving a warrant.
- Reasonable Belief and Reasonable Suspicion: A reasonable presumption by a police officer that a crime was, is, or will be committed. This is more than a hunch and less than probable cause and is used to determine the legality of a police officer's decision to take action.
- Credible Evidence: Evidence that is deemed worthy of being presented in a court and to the jury.
Meanwhile, evidentiary standards in civil cases include:
- Clear and convincing evidence: The judge or jurors have concluded that there is a high probability that the facts of the case as presented by one party represent the truth. The standard of clear and convincing evidence is used in some civil cases, and it may appear in some aspects of a criminal case, such as a decision on whether a defendant is fit to stand trial. The language appears in several U.S. state laws.
- Preponderance of the evidence: Both sides have presented their cases, and one side seems more likely to be true. Most civil cases require a "preponderance of the evidence," as this is a lower standard of proof.
Presumption of Innocence
The criminal justice system seeks to unearth the truth, convict the guilty, and let the innocent walk free. In order for this to work, each juror must walk into the courtroom presuming the accused is innocent.
"It is better that 100 guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer."—Benjamin Franklin
This presumption requires that jurors have a skeptical mindset that must be overcome before they can reach a guilty verdict. The jurors must not just want to believe something or be swayed by prejudices. They must view each shred of evidence presented by the prosecution with skepticism.
Why Is Reasonable Doubt Important?
The reasonable doubt standard aims to reduce the chances of an innocent person being convicted. Criminal cases can result in hefty convictions, including death or life sentences, so a person should only be charged if the jurors are 100% confident, based on the evidence presented, of their guilt.
How Do You Prove Reasonable Doubt?
The jurors must walk into the courtroom presuming the accused is innocent. Reasonable doubt exists unless the prosecution can prove that the accused is guilty. This can be achieved by supplying evidence and inviting people to testify on the stand.
What Are the Three Burdens of Proof?
The three burdens of proof for criminal cases are "beyond a reasonable doubt," "probable cause," and "reasonable suspicion."
What Is the Difference Between Doubt and Reasonable Doubt?
A doubt can be considered reasonable when it's connected to evidence or an absence of evidence. Sympathies or prejudices are not reasonable grounds for doubt.
The Bottom Line
Reasonable doubt is an important legal standard that strives to prevent innocent people from getting convicted for a crime they didn’t commit. If it cannot be proved without a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, then they should not be convicted of the crime as charged.