Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case

There aren't a lot of hot news items today about criminal law "out there," so why don't we have a quick tutorial about the burdens of proof at trial. (Are you asleep yet?!) Do you know the difference in the burden of proof borne by the state in a criminal case, as opposed to the burden of proof borne by a plaintiff in a civil case? In a criminal case, the burden, (or required standard), of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt." In other words, in a criminal case, the state bears the heavy burden of proving the defendant's guilt, (as to each essential element of the crime charged), beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, this really is a very heavy burden, (as it should be, because the government is attempting to lock up one of its citizens). But this doesn't mean that the state must prove the defendant's guilt in a criminal case to a mathematical certainty. Reasonable certainty, (or removal of all reasonable doubt), is all that is required. (As a practical matter, at a criminal trial, that's about all that a Georgia judge will instruct a jury about concerning the burden of proof. The courts will otherwise leave it up to the jury to decide what "beyond a reasonable doubt" really means!)
In a civil case, on the other hand, the burden of proof is much lighter. The burden in a civil case is "by a mere preponderance" of the evidence. In other words, at a civil trial, looking at the scales of justice photo above, a party may win simply by having the scales weighed down, (in their favor), with one additional grain of sand. Simply put, that is all a "preponderance" means. But again, in a criminal case, the scales must be weighed heavily in favor of the state, in order for the state to win.
So, there! This tutorial about burdens of proof wasn't so bad, was it? And maybe next time, we can hope for some hot criminal law news topics, can't we?! Okay, you can wake up now!


  1. What about the underwear bomber? Do you think that is being handled properly?

  2. No, I believe civilian trials for terrorists is a big mistake, as I discussed in my posts on this blog on Nov. 15th and August 28th. Thanks for the visit and comment!

  3. I'll look those posts up. Thank you for the reply.