Proving Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

To convict someone of a crime, the state has the burden of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” More specifically, each element of the charged offense or offenses must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all doubt but rather is means ” a fair, honest doubt growing out of the evidence or lack of evidence. It is not merely an imaginary or possible doubt, but a doubt based on reason and common sense. A reasonable doubt is just that—a doubt that is reasonable, after a careful and considered examination of the facts and circumstances of this case.”

An element is a subpart of a crime. Each crime requires proof of several things in order for a person to be guilty. For example, to prove larceny in a building, a prosecutor must introduce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt for the following 7 elements:

Larceny in a Building(1) The defendant is charged with the crime of larceny in a building. To prove this charge, the prosecutor must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:(2) First, that the defendant, took someone else’s property.(3) Second, that the property was taken without consent.(4) Third, that the property was taken in a [state type of building] 1.(5) Fourth, that there was some movement of the property. [It does not matter whether the defendant actually kept the property or whether the property was taken off the premises] .(6) Fifth, that the property was worth something at the time it was taken.(7) Sixth, that at the time the property was taken, the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property.2

Elements 5 and 7 are the most difficult for the prosecution to prove and for the defense to dispute. Element 7 is almost always shown by circumstantial evidence. Rarely will a person admit to stealing something. Element 5 is much too generous to the prosecution. A person could try on a coat and then put it down and that could constitute movement. It is very weak. I think a person should at least have to attempt to take the property off the premises to be charged.

One important thing a criminal defense lawyer does is makes sure the jury understands that there will always be some evidence. But some evidence is not enough. I own a copy of the Koran. That is some evidence that I may be Muslim but certainly not enough to say I am Muslim beyond a reasonable doubt. (I am Catholic FYI).

Recently I had a case where a department store thought my client was shoplifting. Even though he purchased a lot of merchandise, the loss prevention department stopped him after he had left to store to search him. He was fully cooperative and the search found nothing stolen, only the stuff he bought. He was released. However, a few days later, he received a letter from the Walker police saying they were charging him with shoplifting because a camera caught him allegedly taking something. Naturally, after a month of asking for this tape, I have yet to receive a copy of it.

The state would have a tough time convicting him at trial, but there is enough there for charges to be filed.