reasonable doubt


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Reasonable Doubt

A standard of proof that must be surpassed to convict an accused in a criminal proceeding.

Reasonable doubt is a standard of proof used in criminal trials. When a criminal defendant is prosecuted, the prosecutor must prove the defendant's guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. If the jury—or the judge in a bench trial—has a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt, the jury or judge should pronounce the defendant not guilty. Conversely, if the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant's guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.

Reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof used in court. In civil litigation the standard of proof is either proof by a preponderance of the evidence or proof by clear and convincing evidence. These are lower burdens of proof. A preponderance of the evidence simply means that one side has more evidence in its favor than the other, even by the smallest degree. Clear and convincing evidence is evidence that establishes a high probability that the fact sought to be proved is true. The main reason that the high proof standard of reasonable doubt is used in criminal trials is that criminal trials can result in the deprivation of a defendant's liberty or in the defendant's death, outcomes far more severe than occur in civil trials where money damages are the common remedy.

Reasonable doubt is required in criminal proceedings under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In in re winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the highest standard of proof is grounded on "a fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free."

The reasonable doubt standard is not used in every stage of a criminal prosecution. The prosecution and defense need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that every piece of evidence offered into trial is authentic and relevant. If a prosecutor or defendant objects to a piece of evidence, the objecting party must come forward with evidence showing that the disputed evidence should be excluded from trial. Then the trial judge decides to admit or exclude it based on a preponderance of the evidence presented. A similar procedure employing a preponderance standard is used when a party challenges a variety of evidence, such as coerced confessions, illegally seized evidence, and statements extracted without the furnishing of the so-called Miranda warning.

The reasonable doubt standard is inapplicable to still other phases of a criminal prosecution. Lower standards of proof are permissible in Parole revocation proceedings, proceedings to revoke Probation, and prison inmate disciplinary proceedings.

Further readings

Boyce, Ronald N., and Rollin M. Perkins. 1999. Criminal Law and Procedure. New York: Foundation Press.

Devitt, Edward James, and Charles B. Blackmar. 1977. Federal Jury Practice and Instructions. 3d ed. Vol. 1.

Cross-references

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Clear and Convincing Proof; Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Due Process of Law; Preponderance of Evidence.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

reasonable doubt

n. not being sure of a criminal defendant's guilt to a moral certainty. Thus, a juror (or judge sitting without a jury) must be convinced of guilt of a crime (or the degree of crime, as murder instead of manslaughter) "beyond a reasonable doubt," and the jury will be told so by the judge in the jury instructions. However, it is a subjective test since each juror will have to decide if his/her doubt is reasonable. It is more difficult to convict under that test, than "preponderance of the evidence" to decide for the plaintiff (party bringing the suit) in a civil (non-criminal) trial. (See: preponderance of the evidence)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

reasonable doubt

see BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
References in classic literature ?
It appears to be established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he was killed (while he was asleep, or immediately on his waking) by being smothered with a pillow from his bed-- that the persons guilty of murdering him are the three Indians-- and that the object contemplated (and achieved) by the crime, was to obtain possession of the diamond, called the Moonstone.
It is idle to dispute the general positions of criticism, and there is no useful gainsaying its judgment that French literature is a major literature and Italian a minor literature in this century; but whether this verdict will stand for all time, there may be a reasonable doubt. Criterions may change, and hereafter people may look at the whole affair so differently that a literature which went to the making of a people will not be accounted a minor literature, but will take its place with the great literary movements.
In his last wandering words (spoken when his mind broke down) he refers to the Diary in these terms, 'The Diary will hang him; I won't have him hanged.' If he could have found his opportunity of getting at it in time--or if the sheriff's officers had not been too quick for him--there can be no reasonable doubt that Dexter would have himself destroyed the Diary, foreseeing the consequences of its production in court.
Even though the Pervaise confession had never come to light, no reasonable doubt could obtain; for the act in question, that sent fifty-two Congressmen to prison, was on a par with countless other acts committed by the oligarchs, and, before them, by the capitalists.
I have heard to-night similar, but even more offensive, sentiments from the person who has just sat down, and though it is a conscious effort of self-effacement to come down to that person's mental level, I will endeavor to do so, in order to allay any reasonable doubt which could possibly exist in the minds of anyone.' (Laughter and interruption.) `I need not remind this audience that, though Professor Summerlee, as the head of the Committee of Investigation, has been put up to speak to-night, still it is I who am the real prime mover in this business, and that it is mainly to me that any successful result must be ascribed.
Many years before, the American battleship Maine had been blown up in the harbour of Havana, and war with Spain had immediately followed--though there has always existed a reasonable doubt as to whether the explosion was due to conspiracy or accident.
Dingall, the Treddleston grocer, was giving for butter, and the reasonable doubts that might be held as to his solvency, notwithstanding that Mrs.
(26) For useful overviews, see generally Larry Laudan, Is Reasonable Doubt Reasonable?, 9 Legal Theory 295 (2003); Lawrence M.
According to its provisions, security forces will be able to use protective measures such as arrest, custody, detention and search and seizure based on reasonable doubt instead of strong doubt.
Ministers want to limit compensation to only those people who can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they "did not commit" the crime they were convicted of.
Disciplinary proceedings against the party's former chief executive were dropped after a QC concluded there was a less than 50% chance the allegations could be proved beyond reasonable doubt, although there was broadly credible evidence of "behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants".
They'd need proof beyond reasonable doubt that the force applied was applied intentionally." She added that the case against the Irishwoman contains "absolutely bucketloads of reasonable doubt".

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