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Innocent until proven guilty. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt. These are not just clichés or catch-phrases. They are standards and burdens imposed on the prosecution to avoid wrongful convictions. Our country was founded on the premise that criminal convictions have such an impact on a person’s life and liberty, directly and indirectly, that we require the highest level of proof in order to find a person guilty of an offense. When you are charged with a crime — from a traffic ticket to a DWI to a capital murder — the government must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
All persons are presumed to be innocent and no person may be convicted of an offense unless each element of the offense is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that he has been arrested, confined, or indicted for, or otherwise charged with, the offense gives rise to no inference of guilt at his trial. Texas Penal Code Section 2.01.
For years, lawyers, judges, and legislators have struggled to define “beyond a reasonable doubt” with little success. Definitions have included:
(1) A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense after a careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence in a case
(2) It is the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his own affairs
(3) It must be proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs
In the first example, the definition uses the term to define the term, which is not helpful. The second and third definitions are ambiguous at best. Courts in Texas opted for no definition at all and currently allow jurors to interpret the phrase on their own.
Though we do not know what beyond a reasonable doubt means, we do know what it is not. There five major burdens of proof in our legal system — beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest. By better understanding what the lower levels of proof are, we can begin to grasp how much is required to prove something beyond any reasonable doubt.
This burden is generally used for traffic stops. It requires specific, articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences, lead an officer to conclude a person being detained actually is, has been, or soon will be engaged in criminal activity.
Arrests require probable cause, which means there are facts and circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.
This burden applies most often in civil lawsuits, where a person may be sued for money damages. It is generally explained as proof supporting a story such that it has a “greater than 50% probability” of occurring.
This burden is required for someone, or the State, to take custody of your children and it requires a measure or degree of proof which will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or a conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established.
This burden is required for someone to be found guilty of a criminal offense and, though it is not defined, it is higher than any other burden of proof.
Traditional models depicting burdens of proof show the different levels of proof as a staircase, with higher steps corresponding to increased level of proof. We believe the burdens of proof should be thought of more like a pyramid, which reflects the fact that as the burden of proof increases, the number of cases that meet that burden decreases.
At the end of the day, simply ask yourself how much evidence it would take for the State to take your child out of your arms never to be seen again? Even more evidence than that is required to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.
We have all seen too many cases where an innocent person was wrongfully accused and sentenced to life behind bars for something they did not do. We all have to do our part to make sure this never happens again. The defense must hold the prosecution to its burden by challenging evidence and testing the prosecution’s case to ensure that innocent people are not convicted. In turn, jurors must honor their oaths to base their decisions on the law and to hold the prosecution to its burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.