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What Is the Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case?

By Spodek Law Group | April 1, 2022
(Last Updated On: July 27, 2023)

Last Updated on: 27th July 2023, 06:33 pm

Let’s pretend you and I are sitting down over a cup of joe, and you’ve just asked me, “What’s this ‘burden of proof’ I keep hearing about in criminal cases?”

Well, in our country, someone accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty. This isn’t just a catchphrase from some TV show; it’s the very heart of the American criminal justice system. It’s the prosecutor’s job, not yours or mine, to prove the accused party’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That, my friend, is the burden of proof.

Different Shades of Proof

Though it might sound simple, the burden of proof can actually be a rather slippery fish. There are different levels, or standards, of proof. The ones we often come across are “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” “clear and convincing evidence,” and “preponderance of the evidence.”

What’s the pecking order of proof?

Consider these standards of proof as a ladder of sorts, with certain situations calling for a higher rung than others. For criminal cases, where a person’s freedom is at stake, we demand the highest standard: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The other two, they’re more common in civil cases, where the stakes aren’t quite as high.

Defining ‘Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’

When we say ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt,’ what we mean is that the prosecutors have to persuade the jury that there’s only one reasonable conclusion from the evidence: the defendant is guilty. It’s a tough bar to meet, and that’s why, in criminal cases, the jury’s verdict of guilt needs to be unanimous.

The ABCs of Crime

But wait, it’s not just about proving guilt. To get a conviction, the prosecution has to demonstrate every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The building blocks of a crime, or elements, change depending on the crime, but they typically boil down to three things:

– Actus Reus
– Mens Rea
– Causation

Let’s talk about these in layman’s terms.

Actus Reus: The Act Itself

The first one, actus reus, it’s all about the deed, the actual crime. It can also mean the failure to act when there’s a legal duty to do so. To give you a real-world example, consider a psychologist who doesn’t report a patient who’s threatened to harm someone. That failure to act could check off the actus reus box.

Mens Rea: The Guilty Mind

Mens rea, on the other hand, is all about intent. It’s about what was going on in the person’s mind when the crime was committed. To tick this box, prosecutors have to show that the person knew they were doing something wrong. Imagine two people who’ve fudged their taxes – one knowingly, the other through a simple mistake. The one who did it knowingly would fulfill the mens rea element, the other one wouldn’t.

Causation: Linking Actions and Outcomes

Finally, causation. This is where prosecutors show that the person’s actions led to the illegal result. Like when someone is texting while driving, runs a red light, and crashes. Here, the prosecution just needs to prove that the person’s negligence led to them running the red

light, causing the crash.

What about Affirmative Defenses?

Now, there are times when the burden of proof shifts to the defense, like with affirmative defenses. This is when the defense presents evidence that could lessen or erase their client’s criminal liability. The classics here include insanity, self-defense, necessity, and involuntary intoxication. In such cases, it’s the defense’s job to persuade the jury that these circumstances were at play.

Sure, some folks think the burden of proof is a bit of a straitjacket for the prosecution, but the consensus is, it’s better to let a guilty person walk than to lock up an innocent one.

Teaming Up with Todd Spodek and the Spodek Law Group

Facing criminal charges? It’s crucial you get yourself a top-notch legal team to navigate this maze. Todd Spodek and the Spodek Law Group are the real deal. They’ve got the experience and the know-how to guide you through the system, and they’ll fight tooth and nail to protect your rights.

Oh, and if you’re interested in a deeper dive into the burden of proof and how it works in our justice system, you might find this American Bar Association article helpful. It’s a bit on the formal side, but it’s got some useful stuff.

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