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The Law Says Prosecutors Must Prove Their Case “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." What Does That Mean?

The prosecutor bears the burden of proof because, based on the protections of the U.S. Constitution, a criminal defendant is presumed innocent.  Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof applied in any legal proceeding because the stakes – a defendant’s liberty – are highest.

Some courts have defined “beyond a reasonable doubt” this way:

“It is not required that the government prove guilt beyond all possible doubt.  The test is one of reasonable doubt.  A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense – the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act.  Proof beyond a reasonable doubt must, therefore, be proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it in the most important of his own affairs.  The jury will remember that a defendant is never to be convicted on mere suspicion and conjecture.”

In civil cases, where only money is at issue, the burden of proof is often “a preponderance of the evidence” meaning the party bringing the suit need only prove it is more likely than not that the allegations of the suit are true.

Some cases with more serious civil charges, such as fraud, may require “clear and convincing evidence” – a standard somewhere in between – meaning there is a high probability the allegations are true.

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