What’s the Burden of Proof in Criminal Court, And Why Does It Matter?
In what many people considered the trial of the century, former football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder charges in the mid 1990s. A short time later, a civil jury considered essentially the same evidence and concluded that Simpson was legally responsible for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
How could two juries look at the same facts and reach two different conclusions? The answer lies in the different burdens of proof in criminal and civil court, as outlined below.
Because the burden of proof in criminal court is so high, lack of evidence is one of the most effective defenses which a Tampa criminal lawyer can employ. Many times, the defendant might be morally guilty, but there is simply not enough evidence to establish legal guilt. A skilled attorney can use this defense to beat the case at trial or engineer a favorable out-of-court settlement.
Civil Court Burden of Proof
Divorce cases and personal injury claims are the most common kinds of civil court cases. Since only money is at stake, at least in most cases, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).
Picture two equally sized stacks of paper sitting beside each other. If someone moves a single piece of paper from the right to the left, the stack on the left is larger than the one on the right. So, if jurors are slightly convinced that one side is right, based on something as subtle as the amount of time it took for a witness to get from her chair to the witness stand, that’s a sufficient amount of proof.
A few situations require a slightly higher burden of proof. For example, in most child custody cases, the state must prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. Separating parents from their children is obviously a heavier concern than the legal division of a crumbling marriage or the amount of medical bills in a car crash claim.
Criminal Court Burden of Proof
Since a person’s liberty is at stake, in criminal court, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Florida’s reasonable doubt definition is long and convoluted.
According to the Pattern Jury Instructions, “A reasonable doubt is not a possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable. It is to the evidence introduced upon this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof. A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence or the lack of evidence.”
A DUI collision case is a good example of this burden of proof in action. If there was only one person in the car, that person was almost certainly the driver, even if there is no direct evidence on this point. But if there was more than one person in the car, it’s almost impossible to determine who was driving it, unless there is rock-solid evidence (e.g. one person admitted driving).
Team Up With a Dedicated Attorney
The high burden of proof in criminal court makes many defenses possible. For a free consultation with an experienced Tampa criminal defense lawyer, contact the OA Law Firm. After hours, virtual, and jail are available.