Definition of beyond a reasonable doubt
beyond a reasonable doubt (uncountable)
- (law) A legal standard for deciding the outcome of a criminal charge, requiring evidence that is sufficient to eliminate any doubts that a reasonable person might entertain about whether a claim is more likely to be true than not.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard of proof required in most criminal cases within an adversarial system. Generally the prosecution bears the burden of proof and is required to prove their version of events to this standard. This means that the proposition being presented by the prosecution must be proven to the extent that there is no "reasonable doubt" in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant is guilty. There can still be a doubt, but only to the extent that it would not affect a "reasonable person's" belief regarding whether or not the defendant is guilty. "The shadow of a doubt" is sometimes used interchangeably with reasonable doubt, but this extends beyond the latter, to the extent many believe it an impossible standard. Reasonable doubt is therefore used.
If doubt does affect a "reasonable person's" belief that the defendant is guilty, the jury is not satisfied beyond a "reasonable doubt". The precise meaning of words such as "reasonable" and "doubt" are usually defined within jurisprudence of the applicable country.
The use of "reasonable doubt" as a standard requirement in the western justice system originated in medieval England. In English common law prior to the "reasonable doubt" standard, passing judgment in criminal trials had severe religious repercussions for jurors. According to Christian law prior to the 1780s: "the Juryman who finds any other person guilty, is liable to the Vengeance of God upon his Family and Trade, Body and Soul, in this world and that to come." It was also believed that "In every case of doubt, where one's salvation is in peril, one must always take the safer way. . . . A judge who is in doubt must refuse to judge." It was in reaction to these "religious fears" that "reasonable doubt" was introduced in the late 17th century to English common law, thereby allowing jurors to more easily convict. Therefore the original use of the "reasonable doubt" standard was opposite to its modern use of limiting a juror's ability to convict.
However juries in criminal courts in England are no longer customarily directed to consider whether there is a "reasonable doubt" about a defendant's guilt. Indeed a recent conviction was appealed after the judge had said to the jury "You must be satisfied of guilt beyond all reasonable doubt." The conviction was upheld but the Appeal Court made clear their unhappiness with the judge's remark, indicating that the judge should instead have said to the jury simply that before they can return a verdict of guilty, they "must be sure that the defendant is guilty". R v Majid  EWCA Crim 2563 (12 October 2009).
- What Are the Origins of Reasonable Doubt?, http://hnn.us/articles/47018.html, Feb 25, 2008.
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