Criminal cases involve more than just “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In a criminal case it’s more than likely that the prosecution will have the burden of proving each crime element beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the prosecution does not have to prove guilt to the point of definite certainty. And the defendant does not have to prove innocence in order to avoid conviction. As a general rule, the prosecution bears the burden of proof, but there are cases when the burden shifts to the defendant.
Burden of proof is ever changing
The burden of proof actually falls on the accused when the prosecution establishes a fact that proves an element of the crime. This proof may not necessarily disprove a fact, but it can raise doubts about it. The defendant is not responsible for raising doubts about every fact the prosecution attempts to prove. Creating enough doubt about those points that are crucial to a guilty verdict is sufficient. Defendants will have a more difficult burden when the facts are very convincing.
As an example, imagine the prosecution proves that while searching the defendant the police found a watch that store records report as stolen. If defending against a burglary charge the defendant would likely need to give a plausible explanation for why he or she is in legal possession of the watch. If the defendant can produce a receipt or testimony that proves the watch was a gift then the defendant has essentially shifted the burden of proof back to the prosecution.
In almost every criminal case the prosecution must prove that the defendant had a precise intent. In the case of theft, the prosecution must show that the defendant intended to take an item and not return it. The intent to achieve a certain outcome makes it a crime with “specific intent.”
On the other hand, with a general intent crime the prosecution only needs to prove that the defendant actually committed the act in question, not that he or she intended any precise outcome. For instance, simple assault and battery is a general intent crime. It requires only that the prosecution prove that the defendant intended to hit someone or disregard a clear risk of hitting someone. However, assault with intent to rob is a specific intent crime. In a case such as this the prosecution must prove that the defendant not only intended to strike someone, but also intended to rob that person.
The accused may claim that the particular circumstances in which they took action are actually their defense for why they took action and they are therefore not guilty of committing a crime. These circumstances are called affirmative defenses. Being able to prove an affirmative defense depends on the jurisdiction and the defense in question.
The most well-known affirmative defense is self-defense. It generally involves the defendant acknowledging that he or she committed the act, but argues that it was necessary in order to defend him or herself from harm.
Some states require defendants to prove self-defense by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Other states only require that defendants raise a plausible basis and that the prosecution disproves it beyond a reasonable doubt.Preponderance of the evidence is the lowest evidentiary standard. It requires the party to prove the fact in question is more likely than not to be true.
Other affirmative defenses include: duress, entrapment, insanity and necessity. Whether the defendant carries the burden and what the burden includes depends on the defense and the jurisdiction. For example, the defendant may have to prove insanity by “clear and convincing evidence.”
Clear and convincing evidence is a burden somewhere between preponderance of evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt. This requires that the fact to be proved must be highly probable or reasonably certain.For more on insanity and other defenses, read our blog article, Criminal Defense Strategies.
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Every state has its own rules and requirements related to evidence in a criminal case. If you are facing criminal charges, contact The Brown Firm PLLC, we have expertise on the procedures in your state.