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What "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt" Means

Posted Friday, December 1, 2017 by Lizanne Padula.

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You have probably heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but what does it mean? How is it applied?

Standard of Proof

In a criminal case the prosecutor (the state) must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in criminal cases is on the prosecutor. The legal standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essentially to secure a conviction the prosecutor must prove to the jury (or judge in a bench trial) that the defendant committed each element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is any reasonable doubt left in the jurors’ minds that the defendant did not commit the crime, then they are instructed to acquit (return a not guilty verdict).

What “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” Means

Proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a high legal standard. In fact, it is the highest standard of proof in our legal system.

In contrast, the standard of proof in civil trials, where a plaintiff sues a defendant for damages or an injunction, the standard of proof is “preponderance of the evidence.” The preponderance standard is generally described as a majority standard, or 51%. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant more likely than not committed the act in question and/or was the cause of the ensuing injuries.

Our justice system has a much higher standard of proof in criminal cases because a defendant’s very freedom is often at stake in criminal cases. To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged is a much higher standard requiring a much higher degree of certainty in the minds of the jurors.

The Supreme Court on Proof Beyond a Reasonable DoubtIn In re Winship, the Supreme Court of the United States wrote of the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard:

“The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt has this vital role in our criminal procedure for cogent reasons. The accused, during a criminal prosecution, has at stake interests of immense importance, both because of the possibility that he may lose his liberty upon conviction and because of the certainty that he would be stigmatized by the conviction. Accordingly, a society that values the good name and freedom of every individual should not condemn a man for commission of a crime when there is reasonable doubt about his guilt.” (397 U.S. 358, 363 (1970)).

The Court went on to state: “Moreover, use of the reasonable doubt standard is indispensable to command the respect and confidence of the community in applications of the criminal law. It is critical that the moral force of the criminal law not be diluted by a standard of proof that leaves people in doubt whether innocent men are being condemned.” (397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970)).

Hire A Criminal Defense Attorney to Defend Against Criminal Charges

The proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard is the bedrock of the presumption of innocence in our criminal justice system. In theory this high standard reduces the risk of erroneous convictions. However, irrespective of the high burden of proof placed on the prosecution, it is imperative that criminal defendants have zealous and effective counsel to assist them in their defense.

We urge you to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately if you have been arrested for or formally charged with a crime. Do not delay. Hire the fierce advocates at Padula & Associates, LLC to protect your rights from the very beginning! We answer the phone 24-hours a day, seven days a week. We offer free consultations. Call us 24/7 at 425-883-3366, email us at, or fill out our online free consultation form today.

For over 20 years, Padula & Associates, LLC has been serving the people of King County, Snohomish County, Pierce County, Lewis County, and throughout Washington State with aggressive criminal defense services.