Earlier today at our Wednesday morning Rotary Club meeting, Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, stopped by to talk about the what his office is doing to fight crime and prosecute criminals. Tony focused on how his office is using state and federal DNA databases to solve crimes and solve very old cases.
After the meeting several members asked me questions about why it can be so challenging to convict someone charged with a crime. I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain the difference between the burden of proof in a civil case and the more difficult burden of proof in a criminal case.
Burden of Proof
The burden of proof is the obligation a party has in a trial to produce a certain amount of evidence. Once the burden is met, then the outcome or conclusion of the trial favors the party who had the burden of proof and produced evidence satisfying that burden. The trier of fact (the jury in a jury trial and judge in a court trial) decides if the party carrying the burden succeeded in producing evidence satisfying that burden.
Preponderance of the evidence
In most civil cases, the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence. What this means is that the standard is met if there is greater than 50% chance that the something is true or that something happened.
We usually refer to this as a slight tipping of the scales. Another way of looking at this is to ask, is the proposition more likely to be true than not true?
Beyond reasonable doubt
In a criminal case, a higher standard of proof is required. This is normally referred to as proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
This burden is described as proof having been met if there is no plausible reason to believe otherwise.
If there is a real doubt, based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, then the level of proof has not been met.
This burden however does not mean an absolute certainty. The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution is that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent unless and until proven guilty.
If the trier of fact has no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.