Jury Trials and Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

What does it mean to prove Guilt Beyond Reasonable Doubt?

The prosecutor must convince the judge or jury hearing the case that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is very hard to meet. (By contrast, in non-criminal cases, such as an accident or breach of contract, a plaintiff has to prove her case only by a preponderance of the evidence just over 50%.) As a practical matter, the high burden of proof in criminal cases means that judges and jurors are supposed to resolve all doubts about the meaning of the evidence in favor of the defendant. With such a high standard imposed on the prosecutor, a defendant’s most common defense is often to argue that there is reasonable doubt-that is, that the prosecutor hasn’t done a sufficient job of proving that the defendant is guilty.

If I’m accused of a crime, am I guaranteed a trial by a jury?

Yes. The U.S. Constitution gives a person accused of a crime the right to be tried by a jury. This right has long been interpreted to mean a 12-person jury that must arrive at a unanimous decision to convict or acquit. (In most states, a lack of unanimity is called a “hung jury” and the defendant will go free unless the prosecutor decides to retry the case. In Oregon and Louisiana, however, juries may convict or acquit on a vote of ten to two.) The potential jurors must be selected randomly from the community, and the actual jury must be selected by a process that allows the judge and lawyers to screen out biased jurors. In addition, a lawyer may eliminate several potential jurors simply because he feels that these people would not be sympathetic to his side-but these decisions may not be based on the juror’s personal characteristics, such as race, sex, religion, or national origin.

Can a jury acquit me even if I broke the law?

The jury has the ultimate power to decide whether a person is guilty of a crime. As the conscience of the community, jurors can free a defendant even if they think the defendant actually committed the crime charged. The name for this power is jury nullification. It has always been a part of our judicial system.

When jurors nullify a law by acquitting a defendant who has obviously broken that law, judges and prosecutors can do nothing about it. A jury’s not guilty verdict is final. Jury nullification rarely occurs, but when it does, it most often involves cases that have a political component (such as the refusal to convict draft dodgers during the Vietnam War) or that have harsh punishments the jury does not want to impose on that particular defendant.