Please See Below for a Transcript of the Video
Hi, I’m Richard Waring and I’m a criminal defense attorney in Charleston, SC. If you’ve been charged with a DUI, possession of marijuana, assault and battery, domestic violence or some other crime, you might have asked yourself, “what does beyond a reasonable doubt mean?” Maybe you’ve been watching some detective or courtroom shows and have wondered the same question.
My hope is that after watching this video, you’ll at least have a little bit better understanding of this subject matter because at some point, you might need to know this information. So, for starters, beyond a reasonable doubt is what the courts call a burden of proof. And, a burden of proof is what the party who brings the lawsuit has to demonstrate in order for the jury to find the opposing party guilty at trial. Civil courts use different burdens of proof than criminal courts at trial. For example, a common burden of proof in a civil trial court is that the plaintiff has to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that they have to prove that more likely than not the other party is guilty.
But in a criminal trial, the government always has the burden of proof and they always have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s why it makes sense that the common expression is that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The whole point is that a defendant doesn’t have to prove his or her innocence; rather, the government has to prove his or her guilt. That’s a big distinction. And because in a criminal case a person’s freedom is generally in jeopardy, the burden of proof is higher than civil courts, making it the highest burden of proof in courts in the United States.
Now, as far as what the definition of beyond a reasonable doubt is, we have to look to case law for some guidance. There are actually arguably two available definitions for what beyond a reasonable doubt means. One commonly used definition provides that a reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act. OK… The other definition provides that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Alright. Confused? Well, you’re in good company because I can’t tell you how many criminal jury trials I’ve tried before where the question of what reasonable doubt is was asked by the jurors during jury deliberations.
It’s also important to keep in mind that proving a charge beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that the government has to prove the charge beyond all doubt. That is a major distinction. The government does not have to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond all doubt in order for a jury to convict that person at trial.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys love to argue one definition but not the other, and a skilled prosecutor and defense attorney will know how to utilize the definition that suits them best to their benefit. Naturally, defense attorneys prefer the first definition (i.e. reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act). The reason for this is that that definition arguably suggests that if a juror hesitates in their deliberations, even for a moment, that the state has not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That argument has been put before juries quite a few times. The prosecutor, on the other hand, frequently will tell the jurors that they certainly are allowed to take their time and actually deliberate.
And, prosecutors frequently like the definition that says proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of a defendant’s guilt. It’s a more concrete definition and is easier to demonstrate when the government has a strong case, so it’s generally better suited for the prosecution.
Luckily, in South Carolina, in general, a trial judge will usually provide both definitions for the jurors so that there isn’t any perceived unfair situation. And, a good criminal defense attorney will request that those jury charges or instructions be read to the jury. A good attorney will also listen at the close of trial before jury deliberations to see if the trial judge actually gives those jury instructions on reasonable doubt to the jury and will notify the judge if they were not read to the jury.
So, that’s it for now on the topic of beyond a reasonable doubt. Though this whole presentation might have seemed confusing, my hope is that you’re at least now aware of some of the finer points and issues that are involved with the burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.
And, if you’re in the Charleston, SC area or Lowcountry of South Carolina, feel free to give me a call anytime and we go can over the details of your own case and get cracking on trying to get your case resolved in a meaningful manner. Best of luck.
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