Criminal cases in the United States have a notoriously high standard of proof. The jury or judge must believe that the person in question is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This is why people whom the public often feels are guilty sometimes go free. In the court of public opinion, people are quick to jump to conclussions or accept any evidence as enough evidence. In court, that's strictly not allowed. If the jury has any doubt -- other than something outlandish or unreasonable -- then they cannot convict.
Why This Standard Is Used
The reason that this incredibly high standard is necessary is simply because a criminal conviction can have severe ramifications. In states with the death penalty, some people could lose their very lives. Even with lesser convictions, people's rights are significantly altered. For felony cases, they could face years behind bars and a reduction in rights even after they get out.
In short, our justice system is set up in a way that errs on the side of striving to avoid false convictions. The overall thought behind this process is that it's better to let someone who was guilty leave court without a conviction than it is to convict a man or woman who actually did nothing wrong. This doesn't mean wrongful convictions don't happen, but the system fights to prevent them whenever possible.
This is a founding principle of the United States. Due process -- and, with it, reasonable doubt -- was set up by the Fifth Amendment.
It is important to know that criminal cases carry this high standard of proof, but all cases do not. Civil cases can often be decided by clear and convincing evidence or by a preponderance of the evidence. This is why civil cases sometimes follow criminal cases and can have different outcomes. For instance, a person may be declared not guilty in criminal court and then ordered to pay a fine or restitution in civil court.
If you're facing criminal charges, it's important to know exactly what is needed for a conviction and all of the defense options you have.
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