Beyond a reasonable doubt – what does this common phrase really mean?

beyond a reasonable doubt

By far, the best criminal defense attorney billboard we have ever seen had the following statement: “Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty”.  It may be off-putting to some, but it’s brilliant and it is true. The reason for this is that guilt a legal conclusion that has to be either admitted to or successfully litigated. Every person accused of a crime has a presumption of innocence that the government must overcome.

For guilt to be successfully litigated, the government must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is what some people have a problem with.  This is because the burden of proof for criminal convictions is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. Reasonable doubt is something that all of us have heard about and in this blog, we will explain what it really means. This blog, like all our other blogs, is intended for informational purposes only and not intended at a substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense lawyer.

Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in the law. It is what is used throughout the United States in criminal courts at both the state and federal level.   An example of the North Carolina pattern jury instruction on reasonable doubt can be found here.  Verbiage in particular for North Carolina is as follows:

“A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense, arising out of some or all of the evidence that has been presented, or lack or insufficiency of the evidence, as the case may be.  Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that fully satisfies or entirely convinces you of the defendant’s guilt.”

What does this mean?

It means that you cannot rely on a hunch, a feeling, or an inclination.  It means that even if you think the defendant most likely committed the crime, that that is not enough. If even you are “pretty sure” that he did it, under the law, that is still not enough.  You must eliminate any “reasonable doubt” about each and every individual element of the crime.

OJ Simpson murder case

A great example of this is People of the state of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. If you ask people whether they think OJ did it, chances are most of them will say “Yes. OJ did it.” Yet, he was still found not guilty.  The OJ Simpson case resulted in a trial that had over 100 witnesses and lasted from 1/24/1995 until 10/2/1995, yet the jury found him not guilty by unanimous verdict in about four hours. So, why is it that if everyone believes that OJ committed the murder, a jury found him not guilty? It is because of the standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. So, even if all the jurors felt as though he did it, if they were not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt, they would be duty bound to vote not guilty. Let’s look at this further.

This is a great example of a defense team raising concerns of reasonable doubt.  In this particular case, there were doubts about DNA evidence, serious doubts about the police investigation, doubts about the time line, and of course, doubts about whether the glove fit.  The jury did what they believed was right and found reasonable doubt.

If you have been charged with a crime in North Carolina or South Carolina, contact us to speak with a criminal defense lawyer.