first-year law review

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Criminal Law: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The standard that we use is the Winship standard which is that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged. We use this standard because there’s a lot for the defendant to lose so we need to be sure he’s the guilty party, and because in a civil case, the mistaken judgment isn’t any worse for either party, but in a criminal case, it’s worse for an innocent man to be convicted than for a guilty man to go free. The traditional reasonable doubt definition is that reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt. Reasonable doubt is the that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they can’t say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. This definition is a bit vague, so there are many courts that don’t give instruction on what “beyond a reasonable doubt” is.

There’s also allocating the burden of proof in a case. In Patterson v. New York, the defendant wanted to use the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance in his murder trial. New York’s murder statute didn’t include an element that went to state of mind. The court held that due process doesn’t require that every conceivable step be taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person. To recognize at all a mitigating circumstance doesn’t require the State to prove its nonexistence in each case in which the fact is put in issue, if in its judgment this would be too cumbersome, too expensive, and too inaccurate. Thus, the entire burden isn’t on the prosecution. The prosecution only has to prove the elements of the crime. If the defendant can prove his defense to the applicable standard (usually reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of the evidence), then the prosecutor would have to disprove the defendant’s arguments.


January 11, 2007 Posted by | Criminal Law | Leave a comment