Criminal Law

Criminal Trials - Who Has the Burden of Proof?

Almost everyone has heard the saying, "innocent until proven guilty." This basic principal of criminal law is essentially referring to the burden of proof. The burden of proof is the duty of one party in a case to convince the judge or jury that their version of the facts is true. The defendant doesn't have to prove his innocence because the burden of proof is on the prosecution. The burden of proof is much higher in criminal cases than in civil cases because the defendant often faces jail time and the loss of many civil liberties.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

When a defendant is faced with criminal charges, the prosecution must prove their version of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that each and every element of the crime charged must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt means that there is proof that you would be willing to rely and act upon without hesitation in your own affairs. Beyond a reasonable doubt doesn't mean an absolute certainty.

Criminal Act and Criminal Intent

There are two general elements of a criminal case that the prosecution must prove. The first is that the defendant committed the acts that make up the crime in question. The act can be done purposely, knowingly, negligently or recklessly. Sometimes a failure to act can be a crime when there is a duty to act, such as when a parent has a duty to protect its child.

The second element that must be proved is that the defendant acted with a criminal intent. The meaning of criminal intent depends largely on the crime charged. There are some crimes that eliminate the need to prove that the defendant had a criminal intent.

Burden of Proving Defenses

Ordinarily, if the defendant raises a defense to the prosecution's proof and there is evidence to support it, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove it. If the defense raised is an affirmative defense (self-defense, entrapment, duress, etc.), the burden is on the defendant to present supporting evidence. An affirmative defense is one that doesn't challenge the facts presented by the prosecution but rather excuses conduct that is otherwise deemed unlawful.

The burden of going forward with a case varies in different jurisdictions. For example, in New York, the defendant has to prove an affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Compare this with Massachusetts where, after the defendant has satisfactorily raised an affirmative defense, the prosecution must disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What is the standard for proving the defense that applies to me, such as alibi?
  • What can I do to help my case if I believe that prosecutors are going to file charges against me?
  • When is it in my best interest to remain silent and "plead the fifth?"

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