Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Ryan Heshmati

March 17, 2023

The American legal system's foundation sits in the concept of the government's burden of proof. When a case involves criminal convictions, the prosecution must prove more than possibles and probables; the state is responsible for proving a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Dating back to American frustration with a British legal system that assumed guilt, the American system was built around protecting the rights of the accused. While the term beyond a reasonable doubt is thrown around all the time in modern media: in books, television, and movies, its significance cannot be understated. 

The American burden of proof holds the interests of the accused center stage in criminal litigation. Alan Derschowitz clarified, "Scientists search for truth. Philosophers search for morality. A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt." That created distinction is vital to the gravity of such a burden. The defense of this perspective came from Benjamin Franklin in asserting, "it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer." Juries are not instructed to search for truth or morality but rather to reach a verdict to a degree that is beyond a reasonable doubt, as that best protects those wrongfully accused.

While, as a concept, protecting the accused's rights sounds fantastic, it can sometimes lead to unpopular outcomes. In 1995, a Los Angeles jury delivered one of the most controversial verdicts in publicized criminal law: the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. Mr. Simpson was accused of killing his ex-wife and another man, Ron Goldman, and despite the fact that another jury would later find that it was more likely than not that Simpson was liable for the deaths in a civil trial (involving a lesser burden of proof), he walked free from the criminal trial despite strong evidence, including DNA. The verdict resulted in outrage from many who criticized the acquittal. It marks a powerful example of a situation where a victim's interest in justice may not have been served because of such an enormous burden.

The American legal system needs to protect defendants' freedom. In order to do so, juries must hold prosecutors to incredibly stringent standards; however, that comes with other consequences. When the standards for conviction are so high, guilty men may go free, as some might assert occurred with O.J. Simpson's acquittal in 1995. The beauty of the American system is its resolve in the importance of the protection of the innocent, cognizant of the cost of some guilty individuals going free.