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What Is 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' in a Criminal Case?

In a criminal matter, the State is claiming that a defendant broke the law. But simply making that claim is not enough for the State to penalize the defendant for the alleged violation. Just because the State is arguing that an offense happened does not necessarily mean that it did.

To pursue criminal penalties, the State (or a prosecutor working on the State's behalf) must back up its claim with evidence or logic that the trier of fact (a judge or jury) can base its decision on. The prosecutor's support is the "proofs," and they must meet a specific standard to establish that the claim of an alleged violation is true.

The standard of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt. This blog will discuss what that means for both the defendant and the prosecutor.

Where Does the Burden of Proof Lie?

For criminal cases, the burden of proof lies with the State. In other words, the prosecutor is the one who must convince the trier of fact that a criminal offense has occurred.

Although the defendant has a chance to tell their side of the story, they are not necessarily proving that they are innocent (remember, in the American criminal justice system, those accused of crimes are presumed innocent). The defendant (or their criminal defense lawyer) works to cast doubt on the prosecution's arguments.

By casting doubt, the defense attorney challenges the prosecutor's evidence by showing that some other reasonable explanation exists.

A lawyer can cast doubt in several ways, including, but not limited to:

  • Exposing procedural errors during the arrest and/or investigation process
  • Challenging witness credibility
  • Highlighting discrepancies in statements
  • Demonstrating that the defendant had an alibi
  • Showing that the defendant acted in self-defense or defense of others
  • Establishing that the defendant was falsely accused

What Is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

Beyond a reasonable doubt means that the evidence is such that the trier of fact can conclude with virtual certainty that the defendant committed the alleged offense. That does not necessarily mean that all doubt is erased, but no other reasonable explanation exists based on the proof provided. It is the highest burden of proof in a legal matter. For instance, in a civil case, the standard of proof is a "preponderance of the evidence," which means it is more than 50% likely that the claims are true.

The prosecutor must have sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If they don't, the defendant should not be convicted. However, if the defendant is convicted based on insufficient evidence, they may be able appeal the judgment based on that reason. An appeal is a challenge to a verdict or sentence and ensures that the justice process was fair.

If the prosecutor has sufficient evidence linking the accused to the offense and they can present it persuasively, it is likely that the judge or jury will be convinced of the defendant's guilt.

How Does Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Connect with the Elements of a Crime?

All offenses in the Rhode Island General Laws are comprised of certain elements. Basically, the elements refer to the specific acts involved in a crime.

For example, the following are the elements of shoplifting (R.I. General Law § 11-41-20(b)(1)):

  • Taking possession of merchandise sold by a retail merchant,
  • With the intent of depriving the merchant of any part of the merchandise's value

When the prosecutor makes their case, they must prove all the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, for the shoplifting example, they must show that the defendant took something from a store. Also, they must prove that the defendant planned on keeping the merchant from using or selling any part of the item.

If the prosecutor cannot prove all elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the trier of fact must return a not guilty verdict.

How Does Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Differ from Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause?

Note that beyond a reasonable doubt is different and separate from reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Reasonable suspicion and probable cause are relied upon in the earlier parts of a criminal matter, namely the stop, arrest, and investigation. Beyond a reasonable doubt comes into play during the prosecution phase.

Essentially, reasonable suspicion is the standard affecting a police officer's decision to stop and detain someone. Probable cause is the standard that must be met before law enforcement officials can arrest someone, conduct a search, or obtain a warrant. It is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion but lower than beyond a reasonable doubt.

Like beyond a reasonable doubt, if neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause existed, the outcome of the defendant's case can be profoundly affected. Lack of either can be grounds for having evidence deemed inadmissible or even for having an entire case dismissed.

Attorney Tom Thomasian works tirelessly to challenge the prosecutor's arguments. If you are facing criminal accusations in Rhode Island, schedule a consultation with The Law Office of Thomas C. Thomasian, Esq. by calling (401) 312-4385 or submitting an online contact form.