In New York, the standard of proof the prosecution or government must meet in a criminal case is proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But, what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” really mean?
In a criminal matter, although it does always seem like it, the defendant (the person who is accused of a crime) is presumed to be innocent. As a result, in a criminal trial, a jury or a judge (if the defendant elects to waive his right to a trial by jury), must find a defendant Not Guilty unless on the evidence presented at the trial, they conclude that the prosecution or government have proven the defendant to be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a term of art and frankly very hard to strictly define. Below are the New York Criminal Jury Instructions on “Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” These are the exact instructions that must be read by a judge to any jury that is empaneled to hear a criminal trial.
Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (NY Criminal Jury Instructions)
We now turn to the fundamental principles of our law that apply in all criminal trials–the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Throughout these proceedings, the defendant is presumed to be innocent. As a result, you must find the defendant not guilty, unless, on the evidence presented at this trial, you conclude that the People have proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
[NOTE: Add, if the defendant introduced evidence:
In determining whether the People have satisfied their burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, you may consider all the evidence presented, whether by the People or by the defendant. In doing so, however, remember that, even though the defendant introduced evidence, the burden of proof remains on the People.]
The defendant is not required to prove that he/she is not guilty. In fact, the defendant is not required to prove or disprove anything. To the contrary, the People have the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That means, before you can find the defendant guilty of a crime, the People must prove beyond a reasonable doubt every element of the crime including that the defendant is the person who committed that crime. The burden of proof never shifts from the People to the defendant. If the People fail to satisfy their burden of proof, you must find the defendant not guilty. If the People satisfy their burden of proof, you must find the defendant guilty.
What does our law mean when it requires proof of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”?
The law uses the term, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” to tell you how convincing the evidence of guilt must be to permit a verdict of guilty. The law recognizes that, in dealing with human affairs, there are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty. Therefore, the law does not require the People to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt. On the other hand, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is probably guilty. In a criminal case, the proof of guilt must be stronger than that. It must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
A reasonable doubt is an honest doubt of the defendant’s guilt for which a reason exists based upon the nature and quality of the evidence. It is an actual doubt, not an imaginary doubt. It is a doubt that a reasonable person, acting in a matter of this importance, would be likely to entertain because of the evidence that was presented or because of the lack of convincing evidence.
Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you so firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt that you have no reasonable doubt of the existence of any element of the crime or of the defendant’s identity as the person who committed the crime.
In determining whether or not the People have proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, you should be guided solely by a full and fair evaluation of the evidence. After carefully evaluating the evidence, each of you must decide whether or not that evidence convinces you beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt.
Whatever your verdict may be, it must not rest upon baseless speculations. Nor may it be influenced in any way by bias, prejudice, sympathy, or by a desire to bring an end to your deliberations or to avoid an unpleasant duty.
If you are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a charged crime, you must find the defendant not guilty of that crime. If you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a charged crime, you must find the defendant guilty of that crime.
If you have been charges with a crime, it is very important that your hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend and protect all your rights. At Michael A. Arbeit, P.C., we hold the rights of all of our clients in the highest regard. Call today for a free and confidential consultation. (516) 766-1878.