Beyond Reasonable Doubt Easy Definition Essay

In the U.S. criminal legal system, a prosecutor bears the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the crime for which he has been accused. This means that the proposition, scenario, or facts presented by the prosecution must be proven to the jury to the extent that there could be no “reasonable doubt” in the mind of a “reasonable person” that the defendant is guilty. If, after all evidence and testimony have been presented, even a small doubt affects any member of the jury’s belief that the defendant is guilty, the burden of proof has not been met. To explore this concept, consider the following beyond a reasonable doubt definition.



  1. A feeling of uncertainty about the truth, the reality of a situation or presented facts, or nature of something
  2. To be uncertain about a thing; to be undecided in a belief or opinion


1175-1225   Old French douter



  1. Acceptable to sound reason or judgment, logical


1250-1300  Middle English resonable

History of the Standard of Reasonable Doubt

The Western standard by which accused people are judged originated in medieval England, which held jurors to a strict religious standard in passing judgment. Prior to the “reasonable doubt” concept, passing judgment on an individual in a criminal trial exposed jury members to the edict that, whoever found another person guilty, was subject to the “vengeance of God upon his family and trade, body and soul, in this world and that to come.”

In response to the difficulty in obtaining a conviction because of the religious fears placed upon jurors, the concept of “reasonable doubt” was introduced to the legal system in the late 18th century.

The Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is a requirement for one party in a trial to provide evidence that shifts the opinion and conclusion away from the opposing party’s position to one’s own position. How convincing the evidence needs to be to accomplish this in a court of law varies according to the type of trial. While the burden of proof necessary to convict a person of a crime is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much lower standard of proof is required in civil matters.

  • Preponderance of Evidence – The evidence in a case is convincing that the facts as presented by one party are more likely to be true than not true. In some cases, the standard is held to a greater than 50 percent chance that the facts are true.
  • Clear and Convincing Evidence – While the requirement of clear and convincing evidence there is a high probability that the facts as presented by one party are true. While this seems very similar to the preponderance of evidence requirement, the requirement for clear and convincing evidence is actually a higher standard of proof.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – The evidence presented by the prosecutor in a criminal trial proves the defendant’s guilt to such a degree that no reasonable doubt could exist in the mind of a rational, reasonable person.

The reason the burden of proof in a criminal trial is so strict is that, while a civil trial may result in the defendant being ordered to make monetary payment, a criminal conviction may result in the defendant being deprived of his freedom, or even in his death.

Reasonable Doubt in Practice

In a 1995 trial that lasted nine months, former football player O.J. Simpson was accused of the brutal murder of his ex-wife, Nichole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. The prosecution presented both lay and expert witnesses, as well as a mountain of evidence over the course of six months in an attempt to prove to the jury that Simpson committed the murders.

When Simpson’s rock star team of attorneys took over to present his defense, their only goal was to create even a small doubt in the minds of the jurors that Simpson had killed his ex-wife and Goldman. On May 15, 1995, O.J. Simpson, standing in front of the jury box, tried on the bloody leather glove that had been presented as a key piece of evidence by the prosecution, showing his hand could not fit into the glove. This gave rise to attorney Johnny Cochran’s now-famous declaration, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

After deliberating less than four days, the jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty on both counts of murder. Although a huge amount of evidence, much of it accompanied by complex explanations, was presented to the sequestered jury, that one act of trying on the glove was perhaps the greatest influence in derailing the entire case. Members of the jury simply could not find that Simpson was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

One year later, the families of Nichole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Simpson. The jury in this civil trial believed the families’ attorney who said, “there’s a killer in this courtroom.” With the lower standard of proof being “a preponderance of the evidence,” the jury found Simpson liable for the deaths and award the families $8.5 million in damages. Simpson was subsequently ordered to turn over, not only his monetary assets, but his 1968 Heisman trophy, a Warhol painting, and his golf clubs.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Preponderance – a superiority in importance, strength, power, or weight.
  • Acquit – to relieve someone from a criminal charge; to declare not guilty
  • Wrongful Death – the death of an individual caused by the willful or negligent actions of another person.

McElhaney on Litigation

The Burden of Reasonable Doubt: When a Standard Designed to Protect Defendants Actually Hurts Them

By Jim McElhaney

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Photo by Rick Allred

McElhaney’s Greatest Hits:Jim McElhaney’s first-ever Litigation column for the ABA Journal was published in the October 1987 issue. It appeared on page 110 with no particular fanfare. But it was the start of a 25-year run for McElhaney that finally will end next year. During that quarter-century, McElhaney’s straightforward advice on trial practice became one of the most popular features in the Journal, and we’re not letting him go out as quietly as he came in. So over the next 12 months, the Journal will reprint some of McElhaney’s “greatest hits,” featuring his alter ego Angus and the other lawyers who hang out at the Brief Bag, Zapata’s Chili House and other watering holes near the local courthouse—and it could be any courthouse. This is McElhaney’s first column for the Journal; it originally appeared under the headline “The Cat and the Mouse.”

The young lawyer was right in the middle of final argument when he had one of those awful moments of self-awareness and wondered if he would be able to finish what he was saying. Everything had been going along just fine when all of a sudden he felt the rush of blood to his face and became exquisitely aware that he was standing in front of the jury, talking to them, and that they were listening to what he had to say.

That is when he started listening to his own words. He knew they made sense, but he worried that they might actually be hurting the case instead of helping it.

The young lawyer was right to be concerned. He was representing the defendant in a criminal case, and he was suddenly caught in the Venus flytrap of the law: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You can look at it, you can circle it, you can describe it, you can crawl all over the outside of it. But once you settle on it and rely on it for your defense—if you are not careful—it can eat you alive.

Wait a minute, you say. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a heavy burden that the prosecution has to bear throughout the entire case. It is designed to protect the defendant, to guard against the possibility of the innocent being convicted. How can it be a trap for the defense?

The answer lies in the role of lawyers and the logic of argument.

Whenever you represent a client—whether it is in a civil or a criminal case—you are literally standing up for that person. It is strictly forbidden to say it out loud, but your very presence says, “I have investigated this case. I know the facts and I understand how they relate to the law. You can take my word for it: Justice is on my client’s side.”

Jurors understand the implication of your presence, even if they do not know that it would violate both the law and the code of professional responsibility for you to voice your personal belief in the justice of your client’s cause. Jurors also are suspicious of lawyers; they feel that what we say and do does not represent all that we know about the case.

So, instinctively, they watch us to see what our unconscious conduct reveals. And because of that, it is a terrible mistake to send the signal that you actually think your client is guilty.

How might you do that?

One way is to depend too heavily on the burden of proof. To see how this works, step outside the law for just a minute. Go to a school yard and see if you can take sides in an argument just on the basis of what two young boys are saying to each other. Here are two cases. In each one the dispute is the same. One boy says the other has his baseball glove. The only difference is in how the accused responds.

Case one:

“That’s my baseball glove.”

“No, it’s not. Yours has a broken lace.”

What do you have? A factual dispute. If you can choose between the two just on what they said, you either have an unusual gift or you are prone to jumping to conclusions. You need more than these words just to lean one way or the other in this case, much less take sides.

But consider case two:

“That’s my baseball glove.”

“You can’t prove it.”

If you are as fair-minded as you would like to be, you will want to have more evidence in this case, too. But if you are suspicious of the one who says “You can’t prove it,” that feeling may color your view of the rest of the case. The words are not exactly an admission, but they have a strangely guilty ring.


Now we are ready to go back to the law. When you tell the jury that there is a “heavy burden protecting the defendant, and he is presumed to be not guilty unless and until he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” there is the risk that the jury may translate what you say into a concession that “Maybe the defendant is guilty, but the prosecution hasn’t proved it well enough.”

Like case two involving the baseball glove, talking about the heavy burden can seem almost like an admission. But why?

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt recognizes three different conclusions:

• We are certain he is guilty.

• We are certain he is innocent.

• We do not know whether he is guilty or innocent.

The law makes the middle ground—the ground we do not know—a buffer. It gives the defendant the benefit of the doubt. But telling the jury to give the defendant that benefit of the doubt implies that he needs its protection—and suggests he might well be guilty. So if the jury is listening carefully to see if you will give some sign of what you secretly know, the argument that the case is not proven may sound like you are admitting the possibility of guilt and hiding behind the technicality.

Does that mean you should not argue reasonable doubt when you are for the defense?

Hardly. But it does suggest that if you have facts of your own to prove, emphasizing them may be more effective than being too defensive. It also suggests that you ought to be careful in how you present your argument on reasonable doubt.


There are lots of ways to talk about the burden of proof without admitting the possibility of guilt, but you have to think them through before you use them. You cannot simply tell the jury not to take your argument the wrong way. Here is an argument worth thinking about. It was used by the late Peter M. de Manio of Sarasota, Fla., in a demonstration at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. Remember that de Manio was arguing for the defense, because his introduction may surprise you.

“Is it possible for the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt just on circumstantial evidence, without any eyewitness testimony?” said de Manio.

“Of course. Take a simple example. Suppose that you take a mouse and put him in a box. Now take a cat and put him in the box with the mouse. Then take the lid and cover the box. Now tie up the box with string so the lid can’t come off.

“Leave the room for half an hour. When you come back, untie the string, take off the lid and look inside. There is no mouse, but there is one happy cat.

“Do you know what happened? You weren’t there, there are no eyewitnesses. All you have is circumstantial evidence. But you know beyond any reasonable doubt what happened to that mouse.

“Let’s do it again. Put the mouse in the box. Put the cat in the box with the mouse. Put on the lid. Tie it down. Leave the room for half an hour. Come back into the room. Untie the string. Take off the lid and look inside.

“There is the cat. No mouse.

“But look—back there in the corner of the box. There is a hole, just big enough for a mouse.

“That hole is a reasonable doubt. Now let’s look at the holes in the prosecution’s case.”

Then by implication, every problem in the government’s case is not just a hole; it is a reasonable doubt.

Another nice thing about this argument is the way it draws on our subliminal values. From the first Mickey Mouse production to the Mighty Mouse cartoons at the neighborhood theater to the Tom and Jerry reruns on Saturday morning television, we have been rooting for the mouse—which is just what Peter de Manio’s argument wants us to do.

Jim McElhaney is the Baker and Hostetler Distinguished Scholar in Trial Practice at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland and the Joseph C. Hutcheson Distinguished Lecturer in Trial Advocacy at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

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