Presumption of innocence
We’ve all heard the term innocent until proven guilty, but what exactly does that mean? Simply put, it means an accused in a criminal case is assumed to be not guilty unless the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt otherwise. It is often difficult to fully grasp this fundamental and crucial concept. Imagine you see a person on the news who was charged with a crime. The appropriate thought is “what was that innocent person wrongly accused of.” That is what the presumption of innocence feels like.
Burden of proof
It is the government—not the accused—who is tasked with the attempt to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the government cannot meet that strict burden of proof, the accused cannot be convicted. So, the burden of proving the case is on the government. The accused does not have to prove or disprove anything. In fact, the accused may choose to not put on any evidence in a trial. So long as the factfinder (who is the judge in a bench trial and the jury in a jury trial) finds the government cannot prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused walks freely and there is no conviction regardless of whether the accused decides to present evidence. Further, not only does the accused have the right to remain silent, but the factfinder also cannot infer or believe the accused is hiding something or is guilty of wrongdoing simply because the accused will not take the witness stand to offer an explanation, an alibi, a denial, or defense. The judge or jury is not to consider the accused’s silence when determining guilt or innocence. This stems from the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment which protects against self-incrimination.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt
What is ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt?’ When does it exist? When should it exist? While these may seem like difficult questions to a nebulous concept, Ohio law offers at least some guidance.
Ohio Revised Code Section 2901.05 (E) states reasonable doubt is present, “when the jurors, after they have carefully considered and compared all the evidence, cannot say they are firmly convinced of the truth of the charge. It is a doubt based on reason and common sense. Reasonable doubt is not mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs or depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. ‘Proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ is proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of the person’s own affairs.”
One common example of reasonable doubt is considering a pill bottle containing 100 identical pills. Of those 100 pills, 99 are sugar pills but one is poison that will kill you instantly. In this scenario, you would have reasonable doubt as to whether you or a family member should ingest 1 pill from that bottle.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of evidentiary proof in the law. In a civil lawsuit (when you’re suing someone for money, for instance), the person suing (called the plaintiff) must prove the case by what is called the ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ meaning, the individual must show it is more likely than not certain facts exist that would entitle the individual to some form of relief. It is a weighing of probabilities—as long as the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit can break the 50% mark on the evidentiary scale, the plaintiff has successfully proven her case. When the government tries to place someone in a mental hospital or remove children from one’s home, the government must prove its case by clear and convincing evidence.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof in the law. The government must prove guilt by demonstrating proof beyond any reasonable doubt. This concept is foundational to our constitution and system of government and can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon notion, ‘It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.’