Breaking Down “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
February 15, 2021
When a legal case is brought forward, the outcome of that case depends on the prosecution’s ability to prove the defendant’s guilt. Different standards of proof may apply, depending on the jurisdiction and the type of legal action taking place. The three primary standards of proof include preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and beyond a reasonable doubt.
Preponderance of the evidence is the lowest standard of proof and is commonly used in civil litigation. It requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the allegation is more likely to be true than false. This means jurors don’t have to be completely convinced, but the evidence is strong enough to lead a fair and impartial mind toward one side or the other.
Clear and convincing evidence is commonly used in civil litigation and some aspects of criminal cases. As a step up from the preponderance of the evidence standard, it must demonstrate that the allegation is far more likely to be true than false.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard and is used in criminal litigation because the defendant’s freedom—sometimes their very life—is on the line. This standard is specifically required in criminal cases by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. It calls on the prosecution to convince the court that the allegations are true beyond all reasonable doubt.
The Burden of Proof in the Military
If you have been accused of a crime as a military service member, and your case is advancing to a court martial, you can expect the highest standard of proof to apply. Requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt decreases the chance of convicting an innocent person, which the US Supreme Court has stated is a far worse outcome than allowing a guilty person to go free.
As your legal case begins taking shape, keep in mind that the following applies in military law:
- The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty by legal and competent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
- If there is reasonable doubt, it must be resolved in favor of the accused, and he or she must be acquitted.
- If there is reasonable doubt as to the degree of guilt, it must be resolved in favor of the lower degree. This decreases the chance of punishing a person for crimes they didn’t commit.
- The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, which in military cases, is often the government. The burden never shifts to the accused to establish innocence.
“Reasonable Doubt” in Different Branches of the Military
You’ll encounter a slightly different definition of “reasonable doubt” depending on whether you serve in the Army, Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps. However, each definition is similar enough to be summarized here:
Reasonable doubt is not a fanciful conjecture or ingenious speculation. Instead, it is an honest, conscientious doubt suggested by the material evidence or lack thereof, a genuine misgiving generated by insufficient proof of guilt. Reasonable doubt is based on reason and common sense arising from the condition of the evidence.
Proving a crime beyond a reasonable doubt leaves the court firmly convinced of the accused’s guilt. The proof must provide evidentiary certainty, although not necessarily absolute or mathematical certainty. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt may leave room for far-fetched hypotheses or vague possibilities of innocence, but every fair and rational conjecture points to a guilty verdict.
The rule of reasonable doubt extends to all elements of the offense. Only if the prosecution can demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed each and every element of the crime should a conviction take place.
If the court’s consideration of the evidence leads to the belief that the accused is guilty, he or she should be charged as such. If, on the other hand, there’s reason to believe the accused may not be guilty, he or she deserves the benefit of the doubt and must be found not guilty.
Only matters properly presented before the court should be considered when weighing and evaluating evidence. Anyone participating in the case is expected to use common sense and knowledge of human nature and the ways of the world to consider the inherent probability of the evidence and credibility of witnesses. It is the court’s responsibility to impartially decide whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on the law, the evidence provided, and each participant’s conscience.
Defending Yourself in Military Court
The US military legal system favors the accused. By presuming innocence and requiring evidence that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, courts aim to only charge guilty individuals. Still, a ruthless prosecution calls for a vigilant defense.
Don’t enter your court martial feeling ill-prepared! Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law can help you formulate a rock-solid defense, whether you have been accused of sexual assault, obstruction of justice, or any other crime while serving in the military. We can handle even the most complex cases and have a record of achieving desirable outcomes for service members stationed around the world.