The phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” reflects the highest standard when it comes to burden of proof in a legal trial. When a case must be proved to this standard, it means that if a reasonable person were presented with the evidence, he or she would draw the inescapable conclusion, without any doubt, that the accused was guilty of the crime. If there are doubts or alternative explanations for the evidence, this standard of proof is not met, and a conviction could not be returned.
Many nations require that cases be proved beyond a reasonable doubt when they are criminal in nature, due to the severity of the crime someone stands accused of. For civil cases, there are usually different standards of proof that are less demanding. This legal term relies on a fictional “reasonable person” who is considered to be of sound judgment. In cases where this standard is to be applied, the judge will include a definition of the term in the instructions to the jury to make absolutely sure that everyone understands the standard that they must apply when weighing the facts.
In a system where jurisprudence relies on the idea that people are innocent until proved guilty, when a case is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it means that the presumed innocence of the accused has been disproved. This does not necessarily mean that the accused is guilty, but it does mean that, given the evidence presented, it certainly appears that way. A case can be proved in court, but evidence may surface later that indicates that the facts of the case as presented in court were not the whole story.
This standard is one reason why jury deliberations can take a long time in some cases. If a member or several members of a jury have doubts about a case, they cannot in good conscience cast guilty ballots in the votes carried out to see whether or not the jury has come to a verdict. The jurors can discuss the facts of the case together and still come up with different interpretations, and if they cannot agree on the facts of the case, they may return a “hung” verdict, meaning that some jurors vote innocent and others vote guilty.
People who are called to serve on juries should keep this standard in mind when they are preparing to vote with the rest of the jury. If a juror feels that a case has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the matter should be brought up with the rest of the jury, with supporting evidence. Jurors should never feel pressured into voting one way or the other, not least because if jurors are coerced, a mistrial can be declared and the case will need to be tried again.