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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Definition - What does Beyond a Reasonable Doubt mean?

The due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments "[protect] the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged."

In a criminal case the prosecution has the burden of proof to prove a defendant is guilty. This can be done by presenting evidence, including exhibits, witness testimony, video, confessions, etc. A defendant can only be convicted of the crime, in which they are accused, if the evidentiary standards are met, which means the court believes the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What is beyond a reasonable doubt?

Common law courts refused to define the concept of beyond a reasonable doubt for many years, but Justice Walker of New Jersey, in State v Linker, in 1920, concluded that "Reasonable doubt is not mere possible doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction to a moral certainty of the truth of the charge."

Other courts concluded that an affirmative conclusion of guilt for a criminal conviction should not be given unless the court has heard enough evidence that they are sure the accused committed the crime and this conviction is so strong that the court is satisfied of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Civil cases and preponderance of evidence

The amount of evidence required to convict a defendant in a criminal case varies from a civil claim. Civil claim evidentiary standards are clear and convincing evidence and preponderance of evidence. Criminal convictions are only won by providing enough evidence to show the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Preponderance of evidence is defined as just enough evidence to make it more likely than not that a plaintiff's case against a defendant is true. Unfortunately, this concept can be a bit more difficult to apply to specific cases. Legal experts suggest, however, it can serve as a guide for the courts and juries.

Because civil cases can be much easier to win than criminal cases against a defendant it is not unusual for some defendants to be found not guilty of a criminal offense but later sued in civil court and lose their civil case.

For instance, in June 1994, O.J. Simpson allegedly killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter Ronald Lyle Goldman. He was found not guilty on October 3, 1995, for two counts of murder. Later, both the Brown and Goldman families sued Simpson in a wrongful death civil case and were awarded $40 million in February of 1997 when a jury decided there was sufficient evidence to hold O.J. Simpson liable for the deaths.

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