The Presumption of Innocence & Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
A bedrock principle of the American criminal justice system is that a defendant accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This protection derives from the due process guarantees in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and exists to guard against convictions based on factual error. You may wonder, especially if you are involved in a criminal case, what does it really mean?
The presumption of innocence and the burden of proof work together. Essentially, the presumption transfers to the prosecution the obligation to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that, if you are charged with a crime, you are not required to prove that you did not do it. At least in theory, you can say absolutely nothing at all, and the entire responsibility to prove guilt rests with the government.
Thus, in every criminal case, the government must show that:
- The accused actually committed the criminal act; and
- The accused had the necessary intent to commit the crime. The requisite intent depends on the crime charged. Under some circumstances, negligence or reckless indifference to harm is enough. In others, such as murder, the ultimate outcome must have been intended.
“Evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” means that the evidence must be so convincing that a reasonable person could not doubt the defendant’s guilt. Another way to put it is that there could be no reasonable alternative to the defendant’s guilt. Note that the prosecution is not required to eliminate every vestige of doubt, as long as any remaining doubt would be irrational. A belief that the defendant probably did it is insufficient, in contrast to the burden of proof in civil cases. In civil cases, where the standard of proof is a mere preponderance of the evidence, it is enough to prove that one version of events is more likely to be true than another.
The Florida Standard Jury Instructions for criminal cases explain that a reasonable doubt is “not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt.” Rather, a juror must vote to convict if, based solely on the evidence introduced at the trial, he or she is left with “an abiding conviction of guilt.” Reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt “may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.” Whether these instructions actually help a jury understand its responsibility, however, remains up for debate.
Consult an Orlando criminal defense attorney
If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney working on your side to protect your rights. The skilled criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have successfully represented clients in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and throughout the state of Florida. Contact us today for a free consultation about your case.