BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

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The Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires that the government (state and federal) prove “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” the existence of every element of the crime charged; it is the measure of persuasion (Burden) by which the prosecutor must convince the jury (or judge) of all the essential elements of the crime charged. As Justice Felix Frankfurter once said it is “one of the boasts of a free society”.

What is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (BRD)?

BRD is not proof beyond any doubt- nor is it a frivolous doubt. It is not “probably guilty” which suggests a “More Likely than Not” standard. It is when jurors bring to mind some of the “Most Important Affairs of their lives” and then decide what “degree of certainty” they would require for themselves to act on those affairs; it is that degree of certainty which is required under the BRD standard. For example, say a loved one was facing a “life-threatening” surgical procedure: Do you suggest they get the surgery? How certain would you have to be after receiving opinions from multiple doctors? It is that degree of certainty which is required under the BRD standard. In other words, after listening to the evidence you think the defendant is “probably” guilty or you think the evidence presented by the prosecutor is clear and convincing as to the defendant’s guilt, the BRD standard has not been met and the defendant should be found not guilty.

Example: Take the recent murder case of Byron Smith, the man convicted of murdering two teenagers in his home in Minnesota last week. His claim at trial was that he was acting in defense of his property (or self- defense). The state claimed that he was guilty of murder in the first-degree. The elements they had to prove BRD was: 1. That he took the life of two humans; (2) that he intended to take their lives; and (3) that he did so with premeditation. The first two elements were not at issue; the state introduced evidence of planning (moved his car, waiting in the basement, had food water, etc. while he waited in his chair) to prove premeditation (planning). They presented evidence to show that the self-defense arguments were not reasonable under the circumstances.

Shifting Burden

In cases where the defense argues that the defendant is not guilty either because he was acting in self-defense, was too intoxicated, or under extreme duress, etc., and then some evidence is produced by the defense to support this claim, the burden shifts back to the prosecutor to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt, and in a sense, disprove the defense.  For example, if the defense produced evidence that the defendant was too drunk to formulate intent in an assault case, the prosecutor would have to prove BRD that the defendant had the specific intent to commit the act despite his level of intoxication. In other words, the prosecutor must disprove the defense BRD.

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