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What Is the Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case?

By David Hammond

The burden of proof, regardless of whether it is a civil suit or a criminal trial, is the burden that the prosecution or plaintiff must meet in order to be successful in the legal pursuit at hand. For prosecutors in a criminal case, they are looking to meet the burden of proof in order to secure a guilty verdict. The burden of proof they carry, however, is the highest one in U.S. law. Here, we will talk more about the burden of proof in a criminal case.

What Is the Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case?

Criminal defendants facing any level of charge, from misdemeanors to felonies, are all innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the legal system. It may not feel like it as you confront this system, but it remains a fundamental standard of U.S. law. In order to prove a defendant guilty of criminal conduct, the prosecution must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The beyond a reasonable doubt burden of proof is the highest standard of proof there is and with good reason. The potential penalties a person faces when confronted with a criminal charge are steep and can result in loss of personal freedoms, civil liberties, assets, and so much more.

Proving that a defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt means that each individual element of the crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. While the beyond a reasonable doubt burden is meant to be steep, it is by no means meant to be an impossible burden for the prosecution to carry. The prosecution is not meant to have to dispel any possible doubt. The burden itself says that only “reasonable” doubt must be eliminated to be successful.

The burden of proof starts and may very well stay with the prosecution. This, however, depends on other things at play during trial, such as the defense strategy. If the defense team asserts an affirmative defense, the burden of proof will shift momentarily  to the defense. An affirmative defense is one where the defense essentially says “Yes, but…” The defense is saying that the defendant may have engaged in the conduct alleged by the prosecution, but it was not criminal (or deserves a lesser criminal charge) because of extenuating circumstances. One of the most commonly mentioned affirmative defenses is self-defense when the defendant has been charged with a violent crime. In this example, the defense would be saying that the defendant’s behavior was justified and not criminal because he or she was defending himself or herself against an aggressor.

Should an affirmative defense be asserted, the burden of proof shifts to the defense. The burden in successfully asserting an affirmative defense will vary based on jurisdiction. Often, it is a preponderance of the evidence standard. The defense must prove through the presentation of reliable evidence that the affirmative defense is valid. This burden of proof is, of course, not as heavy as the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.  Once the burden of proof is carried to assert the defense, then the burden shifts back to the prosecution to disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal Defense Attorneys

There may be a great deal of legal jargon thrown your way if you face criminal charges. While it can be overwhelming, it can also be important to understand your rights and what you are up against. The criminal defense team at CDH Law can provide you with trusted legal guidance as well as a fierce defense in any criminal matter you may face. Contact us today.

About the Author
David is a former military prosecutor and defense lawyer with over a decade of experience fighting for service members and their families. He served nine years and two combat tours as an active duty US Army officer, then joined the Reserves and settled down in Syracuse to be near family. Now representing people across Central New York charged with serious felonies, misdemeanors, DWIs, and traffic offenses, he puts the same level of commitment into his civilian law practice. If you have any questions regarding this article, you can contact David here.