What Does “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” Mean?
A seed may be a small thing, but when planted correctly, it can grow into something meaningful. The same is true of the seed of doubt. At times, a jury needs nothing more than this to return a verdict of innocence in a criminal case.
What is Reasonable Doubt in a Criminal Case?
The Nevada prosecutor who hopes to obtain a conviction in a criminal case must prove the allegations in such a way that no reasonable person could fail to believe that they are true. If any doubt remains in even one juror’s mind, the prosecutor has failed in this task. Putting this doubt in the juror’s minds is the goal of the criminal defense lawyer.
For the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, any doubts that might remain must be, in fact, unreasonable. The prosecution’s evidence must lead directly to the conclusion of guilt and rule out any plausible alternative.
Nevertheless, proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt does not equate to proving it with absolute certainty. It only means that the evidence presented must point to the logical conclusion that the defendant committed the crime. Few things in life can be known unconditionally.
When the Evidence Is Purely Circumstantial
While the presentation of direct evidence must preclude the existence of capricious and illogical doubt, some jurisdictions hold circumstantial evidence to a somewhat stricter standard. When the evidence is purely circumstantial, the prosecution must prove guilt to the moral exclusion of every reasonable inference or hypothesis that might hint at the defendant’s innocence.
No Element Left Behind
When prosecuting any one particular crime, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt extends to every one of its elements. For example, the state of Nevada defines the crime of burglary to consist of entering a structure with the intent to commit a crime. There are two elements present here. To convict you of burglary, the prosecution must prove not only that you entered a structure but also that you did so with the intention of removing items from that structure without the owner’s permission. If the jury has good and reasonable cause to doubt that either or both of these elements occurred, it cannot rightfully call for conviction.
Finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt doesn’t mean that no doubt can possibly exist. It means only that any misgivings that might arise have no logical basis. The evidence must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond the level of probability. This is the highest proof required by law.
Elements versus Facts
Although the standard of reasonable doubt in a criminal case unquestionably applies to every element of the crime itself, it does not necessarily also pertain to proving certain questions of fact. The preponderance of evidence standard is often sufficient to verify such matters as whether the police have violated a defendant’s right to counsel or subjected him to unreasonable search and seizure.
For example, the defense may argue that items obtained from the defendant’s home without a search warrant constitute inadmissible evidence. The prosecution, however, may counter that since the defendant gave the officers permission to search the home, no warrant was necessary. If the word of the single defendant contradicts the statements of several investigating officers, the judge may decide that the preponderance of evidence confirms that a warrant was uncalled for in this instance.
Presumption of Innocence
The 14th Amendment holds that a jury must presume anyone accused of a crime to be innocent until the prosecution has proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. The court is responsible for ensuring that each of the jury’s members fully understands this. A failure to impart this information to the jury violates the defendant’s right to a fair trial and can serve as grounds for a reversal of any subsequent conviction.
Reasonable versus Possible Doubt
Since nothing in this world is ever entirely certain, proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proving it beyond all possible doubt. To win a conviction, the prosecution must convince the jury only that any question as to the truth of the allegations makes no reasonable sense. On the other hand, if the defense can successfully raise sufficient doubt concerning even one element of the alleged crime, the jury will have to find the defendant innocent.
The law does presume the innocence of all defendants unless and until overwhelming proof shows otherwise. If the jurors are unable to shake their reasonable doubts as to the suspect’s guilt, they must give that person the benefit of the doubt and find him or her not guilty.
In most cases, jurors who feel firmly convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s involvement in the crime will be entitled to vote for a conviction. On the other hand, without corroborating evidence to back up the charges, the mere possibility of guilt does not equate to an inevitable probability. It is surely not a certainty, and on its own, it should never stand as reason to convict.
Example: The defendant, Mrs. X, walking out of Olde Tyme Furriers with a vintage mink she stole draped around her shoulders. Strangely enough, a fur piece matching the identical description has just disappeared from that same shop.
It doesn’t look good for Mrs. X. There is certainly a possibility that she personally purloined the coat, but is there any evidence to prove it? Can anyone know that she’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?
However, at this point, the possibility of this woman’s guilt is nothing more than that. Bad taste in clothing aside, other circumstances may have conspired to create a false impression. For instance:
- She may have confused the exit door with the dressing room door and left the shop by mistake.
- She may have innocently borrowed the stole from the person who actually filched it.
- Despite a similar appearance, the fur piece she’s wearing may not be the one that’s missing from the inventory.
- She may have personally owned the item for decades.
While it is always possible that Mrs. X did steal the stole, a jury that hopes to find her guilty will most likely need more evidence than just the videotape. The law does presume the innocence of all defendants unless and until overwhelming proof shows otherwise. If the jurors are unable to shake their reasonable doubts as to the suspect’s guilt, they must give that person the benefit of the doubt and find him or her not guilty.
While the concept of reasonable doubt seems simple on the surface, the problem arises when someone attempts to define its meaning. Does it have anything at all to do with:
- A serious suspicion
- A state of near certitude?
- An abiding conviction?
- A moral belief?
In most cases, all of the above will apply. Many trial judges in criminal cases insist that jurors who want to convict a suspect beyond a reasonable doubt must be at least 90 percent convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Reaching this degree of certainty generally necessitates ranking the defendant’s probability of guilt as either high or very high. Only then will the juror be within his rights to convict that defendant.
The truth is that few things in life can be known with absolute certainty. When it comes to determining guilt in a criminal case, the law must fall short of requiring proof that removes all possibility of doubt, relying instead on the concept of reasonable doubt.
A Good Criminal Defense Attorney is the Optimal Offense
By its very nature, every criminal charge will contain some element that is bound to raise questions. If you should find yourself charged with criminal activity in the state of Nevada, you need a criminal defense lawyer that can not only plant that seed of doubt in the jurors’ minds but also nurture it and help it grow. The criminal defense attorneys at Weiner Law Group know how to make this happen. Please call 702-202-0500 today and let us help you with your case.