The Forgotten “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” Standard

Everyone in the United States is familiar with the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Everyone in the country even seems to know that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard of proof that applies in criminal cases, that it is a relatively high standard of proof, and that the prosecution must meet that standard in order to convict a criminal defendant. This level of public knowledge is fairly impressive, especially given the lack of basic civics education in recent decades. Why is it, then, that those who work within the criminal justice system day in and day out seem to forget this basic tenant of our law so often? The apologist might say that it is simply the result of experience and expertise that leads to a kind of “realistic” outlook on criminal cases. A more pessimistic view of the same phenomenon might be that a career in criminal law leads to an erosion of ethical principles, or a numbness to the severity of the consequences faced by those that are charged with criminal offenses. There are also very real practical pressures that are felt on all sides of the system – the prosecutor does not want to dismiss cases left and right for fear of burning bridges with their partners in law enforcement or for fear of seeming soft on crime; the defense attorney must often advise their client to avoid unnecessary risks and strive to keep their case-load manageable; and the judge must also keep the criminal justice train moving and avoid derailments and backups. Whatever the reasons, attorneys and judges in the criminal justice system speak the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” constantly, and even routinely instruct juries in detail on what that phrase means, but they seldom act in accordance with that legal standard.

The generally agreed upon explanation for what this critical phrase really means is that a criminal defendant cannot be found guilty when there is a doubt for which a reason exists with regard to any element of a particular criminal charge. This must be an actual doubt, not an imaginary doubt. Essentially, if you can articulate a doubt about any element of a criminal charge, and there is some basis for that doubt given the evidence or lack of evidence, the person charged with that offense cannot be guilty. However, it would be difficult for anyone in the criminal justice system to say, with a straight face, that this is how criminal attorneys and judges actually think or talk.

All too often, when there is an evidentiary problem with a case, the result is that the defendant is offered lesser charge. “You’re right, there is that eye witness that says it was the other way around, and she does seem credible. Tell you what, I’ll offer him a misdemeanor if he’ll take it next time we’re in court.” That is not our system of justice, and it should not be our system of justice. If there is some actual credible reason to doubt a criminal allegation, the case must end, then and there. We cannot submit to the understandable but misguided temptation to start weighing that reasonable doubt we have against the other reasons we have to believe the allegations. As soon as you let your mind go there, you have already forgotten what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means, and why it is so important to remember.

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