What is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

June 3, 2022 Criminal Defense

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the standard used in criminal trials to convict the defendant. The defendant cannot be convicted unless the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime alleged.

In this blog, we will cover the definition of beyond a reasonable doubt, the different standards that we use and when we use them, and explain the necessary evidence needed to satisfy these standards.

What are the Legal Standards of Proof?

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the highest legal standard we have in the United States. The other standards are clear and convincing evidence, the preponderance of the evidence, probable cause, and reasonable suspicion.

Clear and convincing evidence: Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediate standard of evidence between beyond a reasonable doubt and preponderance of the evidence. It means the evidence shows that it is more likely than not that a certain fact is true. This standard is used both in civil and criminal law. In criminal law, this standard is used for the insanity defense. In this context, the defense attorney is trying to prove that at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant was more likely than not “insane.” Read more about the insanity defense here.

Preponderance of the evidence: Preponderance of the evidence is normally a standard used in civil trials. Preponderance of the evidence means that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim in the trial is true.

Probable cause: Probable cause is the standard used in criminal law for searches and seizures (arrests). Probable cause requires that the police officer has articulable facts and circumstances that are the basis of probable cause. In the case of a search, the facts and circumstances would have to lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence or contraband relating to a crime will be found in the area.

Reasonable Suspicion: Reasonable suspicion is the standard used that allows the police officers to effectuate a stop, every traffic stop has to be based on reasonable suspicion. This standard is less than probable cause, however, reasonable suspicion is not a hunch. The police officer still has to have an articulable reason that criminal activity has occurred or is about to occur. The difference here is that the facts do not rise to the reasonableness level in probable cause.

The Florida Jury instruction 3.7 explains what reasonable doubt is in the following instruction:  

A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty.

The burden of persuasion that the prosecution must meet requires them to persuade the jury that they’ve met each and every element of the charged offense. Each and every element of a crime has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecutor. This means that if the jury is unconvinced that the prosecution met even just one element of the charged offense, then the jury must find the defendant not guilty of that charged crime.

The burden of production that the prosecution carries requires them to present adequate evidence that supports the facts as they assert them to have happened. If the judge finds that the evidence is lacking, the judge can dismiss the charges through either a motion to dismiss or a judgment of acquittal depending upon the time of the motion. Both motions result in the charges being dismissed because the state does not have enough evidence that is legally sufficient for a jury to draw inferences on to give a verdict.

Florida’s jury instruction 3.7 informs jurors that reasonable doubt can form from the evidence, conflicts in the evidence, or the lack of evidence. Learn more about Florida Jury Instructions from our blog. 

What Constitutes Evidence?

Evidence is not limited to physical photos, videos, audio, or other documents. Testimony from witnesses is also considered to be evidence. In some cases, there are few pieces of physical evidence, and almost all the evidence is based on witness testimony. Part of the job of the jury is to determine whether or not to believe the witness and how much weight to apply to their testimony.

Conflicts of Evidence

It is imperative for a defense attorney to point out the conflicts of evidence to establish reasonable doubt. One of the jobs of a defense attorney is to poke holes in the prosecutor’s argument. Conflicts in evidence can arise from many different situations.

Conflicts in evidence may arise from conflicts in different witnesses’ testimony. The alleged victim of a crime may testify to one set of facts that place the defendant at the scene of the crime, but a different witness may testify that the defendant was at work at the time of the alleged crime. The jury will have to decide which witness to believe.

Conflicts of evidence can also arise when the witness testifying on the stand has given inconsistent statements about the facts. In preparation for trial, a witness is deposed, a process where the prosecutor and the defense attorney ask the witness questions about the alleged crime. A deposition is taken after the witness takes an oath, to tell the truth, and is under the penalty of perjury. It is the job of the defense attorney to present the conflict in the prior testimony to the current testimony. An experienced criminal defense attorney will know what the deposition testimony was and have the deposition prepared to impeach the witness. Impeaching a witness is simply the process of the attorney asking the witness what their testimony is today and reading the witness’s prior statement. Proper impeachment will show that the witness has testified to different facts, and the statements are not consistent.

Conflicts of evidence can also arise when the testimony does not match the physical evidence. For example, if a victim testifies to a brutal assault, where they alleged to be punched multiple times, but then the photos show no injury, then there is a conflict of evidence. These conflicts of evidence can give rise to reasonable doubt.

Lack of Evidence

Sometimes the police investigators do not investigate each piece of evidence involved in a crime, so evidence of a crime goes missing. It can be difficult to determine what evidence is missing, which is why it is imperative to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. The police may have failed to take pictures of the victim after a battery took place. They may have failed to find and depose all the relevant witnesses. In a DUI case, there may be no breathalyzer test or blood alcohol test. Evidence may have been lost due to the failure to preserve the evidence. The lack of evidence alone may raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

It is essential to hire an experienced attorney familiar with how to show reasonable doubt in a case. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in the state of Florida, contact a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney who can help navigate your case and examine the most applicable defenses. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience defending Floridians against criminal charges and will be committed to fighting for your freedom. Give us a call at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Melissa MacNicol

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