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Matthew Radefeld & Dan Juengel
Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

The true meaning of ‘reasonable doubt’

On Behalf of | May 18, 2020 | Criminal Law |

The legal standard set out in Missouri’s criminal codes states that everyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The same is true in federal court. But what exactly does this mean?

The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” is recognized as a high burden of proof on the prosecution in a criminal case. In comparison, in most civil trials the plaintiff only has the burden to prove their case by the “preponderance of the evidence,” or basically, show that the defendant is more likely liable than not. In criminal court, the prosecutor must prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charges against them. Anything less is supposed to result in a not guilty verdict from the jury.

The history of ‘reasonable doubt’

You may be surprised to know that this standard is only 50 years old. In its 1970 decision In re Winship, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the due process clauses in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant relief from conviction “except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” This ruling applies to state-level charges as well as federal.

Protecting yourself against an unjust conviction

While this is an important ideal, the reality is that people in St. Louis are convicted all the time based on evidence that falls short of eliminating any “reasonable doubt” of their guilt. For example, testimony from unreliable witnesses, even a single witness, often is enough to convince jurors that a defendant committed significant felonies.

If you have been charged with a crime, your best chance at a fair trial or reasonable settlement is to retain a strong and experienced criminal defense attorney.