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Home > Blog > Criminal Defense > Standards and Burdens of Proof, and the Meaning of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
Oct 27, 2015

Standards and Burdens of Proof, and the Meaning of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”

If you read any legal blog out there, including this one, or watch legal shows on TV like Law & Order, then you’re aware of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, not very many people outside of the legal community of lawyers, law clerks, and judges use the term correctly. As a result, it creates lots of misunderstanding and confusion, especially when people assume that they know what it means, but really don’t.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard of proof that needs to be met in a typical criminal case. The standard of proof is how well a case has to be proved, in order for it to be successful. The side that needs to satisfy the standard of proof is said to have the burden of proof.

A good way to understand standards and burdens of proof is to compare different ones. In a typical civil case, where someone is suing someone else for money over something like a contract breach, the standard of proof is different, and the burden of proof is on the person filing the lawsuit; the plaintiff. In these cases, in order to win, the plaintiff has to show that they’re right “by a preponderance of the evidence.” “Preponderance” is another word for “a greater amount.” Therefore, to win a civil case where a preponderance of the evidence is necessary to win, all the plaintiff has to do is make a case that is more convincing than their opponents’.

If standards of proof were hurdles, then the preponderance of the evidence standard is a low one. You can think of it being met if the plaintiff is 51% convincing. When all that you have to do is make a better case than your opponent, even if it’s only barely better, then it’s relatively easy to come out on top.

Criminal cases, however, use a different standard of proof. Instead of only requiring the side with the burden of proof to argue their case by a preponderance of the evidence, criminal cases require them to show it beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead of only having to be more convincing than the other side, now the side with the burden of proof has be convincing to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt. With that said, the Maine Law Court has prohibited quantifying the standard with a number, such as 99.9%.

Luckily, the party with the burden of proof in criminal cases is the prosecutor.

This means that, if you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s up to the prosecutor to make the jury not just think that he or she was more convincing than your defense attorney, but so much more convincing that there is not a single shade of doubt in the jury’s mind that you’re guilty.

Because the jury has to be absolutely convinced that you’re guilty, the need for a criminal defense attorney is high. You can think of defense attorneys like William T. Bly as professional reasonable doubt raisers. Tap into his skills and experience in the courtroom by call his law office at (207) 571-8146, or by contacting him online.

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