What does "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Criminal cases typically require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Criminal cases typically require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

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.

A jury is a group of citizens who are tasked with determining whether an accused party is guilty or not guilty.
A jury is a group of citizens who are tasked with determining whether an accused party is guilty or not guilty.

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.

Video evidence which clearly shows the accused committing a crime may prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Video evidence which clearly shows the accused committing a crime may prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon950381

@Kristee: You served on a jury tasked with deciding the guilt or innocence of a serial killer who murdered people in your own neighborhood? Wow.

anon330153

I find it ironic that lawyers cannot bring themselves to name a numerical probability. The problem is, to say that x% probability is enough is equivalent to saying it is acceptable if (100-x) percent of people are convicted wrongly. And of course, nobody wants to say that. But pussyfooting around this with weasel words doesn't make it go away. In criminal law, this is the Voldemort of questions - it cannot be named, cannot be discussed. It is too uncomfortable.

But in fact, in an increasingly technical world, probabilities can actually be calculated (when evidence is based on any kind of numerical data). Then it becomes harder to hide behind subjective words and pretend there is no numerical standard.

anon291733

My concern is that the older I get, the less "reasonable" people seem to be, and the more information and faster paced the world is the less likely people are to actually listen. That is just my experience in business. I feel a lot of empathy for those in court rooms.

shell4life

If only every case that came to trial showed no reasonable doubt that the accused were guilty, we in the legal system could sleep more soundly at night. I've had several cases where I just wasn't sure, and living with that doubt isn't easy, by any means.

Kristee

@giddion – You have to look at it from a different angle, though. What if you had the opportunity to put a mass murderer away so that he couldn't kill anyone else?

What if the evidence screamed “guilty” beyond a reasonable doubt? You might be able to prevent your neighbor, your sister, or your daughter from being murdered by this man.

I was on a jury that did find a man guilty of multiple murders, and some of his victims had been right in my neighborhood. I was really glad to have a part in sentencing him.

giddion

I have never had jury duty before, and I know that I would be extremely troubled if I did. I hate to think of someone else's punishment being in my hands.

If I had even the slightest hint of doubt, I couldn't vote guilty. Even if everyone else in the room were pressuring me because they were ready to go, I just could not do it.

I think I would make a terrible juror. I'm always giving people the benefit of the doubt, even when they don't deserve it.

lighth0se33

My cousin is an expert in DUI law, and he says that these cases are often so easy to prove beyond reasonable doubt. You have concrete evidence in the form of a breathalyzer test and several police witnesses that the accused is guilty, so it's pretty hard to refute that.

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