Legal Standards and the Burden of Proof used in criminal law versus civil law

The burden of proof, and the different standards used in our legal system between Civil Cases and Criminal Cases is oftentimes confusing. The media creates a sense of shock from large verdicts, or not guilty verdicts, but the substance and legal standards used are often missed.

Indeed, in a Criminal Law trial, the prosecutor has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime for which he has been charged. Such is true whether it is a jury trial or a non-jury trial.

A perpetually popular puzzle for many potential jurors and non-jurors alike is the meaning of reasonable doubt and how that impacts the burden of proof. What has forever been an enigma to many attracts one’s innate curiosity for the very reason that it is not easily understood, along with the relative importance of the standard due to what is at stake: the freedburden of proofom, and in limited circumstances, the life, of the criminally accused. The Casey Anthony trial and not guilty verdict in Orlando, which attracted worldwide attention, heightened the interest.

Reasonable doubt is when a reasonable person has a doubt and there is a reason attached to it. A juror is deemed to be a reasonable person for the task at hand: finding the accused guilty or not guilty. The jury selection process has proven to be the best vehicle for producing fair and impartial juries.

The prosecution has to prove certain things, which are those things that make up the crime(s) for which the defendant has been accused of committing. If a juror has a doubt about something the prosecution does not have to prove, but no doubt about what the prosecutor has to prove, the juror has a duty to find the defendant guilty. However, if the juror has a doubt about what the prosecutor has to prove, and the doubt is reasonable, the juror has a duty to find the defendant guilty of the particular crime(s).

The reasonable doubt standard is the highest standard of proof in our state and our country. It is not to be confused with the non-legal standard “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” which is no doubt whatsoever, and the reasonable doubt standard is used in both misdemeanor and felony criminal trials, unlike the other two legal standards.

The preponderance of the evidence standard, used in civil court matters, is when one side is believed more than the other side, even if by the slimmest margin. The juror has a duty to side with the party more believed in the civil trial at hand.

The third standard lies between the two: the clear and convincing evidence standard, used in civil court and sometimes in criminal court. The evidence must be substantially more likely to be true, whereas with the preponderance standard it need only be more likely. “Substantially” is the operative word that distinguishes the two standards.

In conclusion, a simple way to separate the burden of proof and the three legal standards afore-state, is that the preponderance of the evidence standard must breach the 50% mark, while the clear and convincing standard must reach a higher level, and the reasonable doubt standard requires one close to certainty. One need not have absoluteness.

If a juror has a doubt as to what the state has to prove, and it is real doubt [the doubt(s) results from reason, or logic], then the juror has a job to find the criminally accused not guilty of the particular charge(s) at trial.

For more information, please see our criminal law page

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