Proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” refers to the standard of proof the prosecution must meet in a criminal case. The standard of proof is the level of certainty each juror must have before determining that a defendant is guilty of a crime.
In practice, it is impossible to precisely define “reasonable doubt.” It can be easier to understand, however, by contrasting it to the standards of proof used in civil trials. In a civil trial, where a person’s freedom is not at stake, there are two possible standards of proof that must be met in a case. One is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which means certain facts or evidence presented at trial are more likely than not to be true (just over 50% is fine). The other standard is “by clear and convincing evidence,” which means that there is a high probability that a piece of evidence is true. Reasonable doubt is defined somewhat differently depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, but essentially, a juror can have some doubt in her mind, but it cannot be one that would affect a reasonable person’s “moral certainty” that a defendant is guilty. Because a defendant’s liberty is often at stake in a criminal trial, the reasonable doubt standard is the highest standard in the legal system.
Another vital component to the criminal trial is the requirement that the prosecution bears the “burden of proof.” A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and therefore it is the prosecution’s job to build a case against the defendant, not the other way around. This may seem like minor distinction, but if the prosecution simply had to accuse the defendant of a crime and then wait for the defendant to prove that he or she didn’t do it, a corrupt prosecutor could charge anyone with any crime, without proof. If, under that system, the defendant had no alibi, the jury might be forced to convict based on very little evidence.
The drafters of the Constitution were wary of a legal system with too much power, and promised that no person under the law should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Requiring the prosecution to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt is one way in which the justice system protects each defendant’s fundamental right to due process.
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