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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

By Andrew Criado, Senior Attorney

The four most important words in criminal law: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. What does that mean? It means that a person charged with a crime cannot be convicted and punished unless the prosecution can prove the defendant’s guilt in court beyond a reasonable doubt. The government’s evidence has to erase all reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. What if, at the end of the prosecution’s case, there remains some doubt about whether the defendant committed the crime? Then the charge must be dismissed. What if the prosecution proves that the defendant probably committed the crime? Then the charge must be dismissed. In a criminal case, any conclusion other than proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires that the charge be dismissed—forever.

The government gets one shot at proving its case. This concept is important because it makes clear that a criminal case is about whether the government can prove the crime rather than whether the crime actually happened. There are many cases where the evidence shows that the defendant most likely committed the crime but the charge is nonetheless dismissed because the evidence does not meet the high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The beyond a reasonable doubt standard protects all of us from the power of the government. As John Adams once said: “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished.” The government’s power to prosecute and punish criminal behavior is so great that it can only be exercised when it is certain the defendant committed the crime.

The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is also why it’s important assert your right to remain silent or not consent to a warrantless search. The prosecution has such a high burden in proving its case that you don’t want to say or do anything that will give them more evidence against you.

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