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Who Has the 'Burden of Proof'? 3 Things You Should Know

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

It's a legal phrase we hear all the time, but we many not know exactly what it means. So what is the burden of proof in a criminal case? And who carries this burden?

As a general principle, the burden of proof is the obligation to present enough evidence to prove that your allegation is true. This obligation, and the amount of proof necessary, differs depending on the type case and what claim the evidence is presented to prove.

Here are three things you should know about the burden of proof in criminal cases:

1. It Actually Refers to 2 Burdens.

As a legal concept, the burden of proof can cover two distinct ideas. It can identify which party carries the burden, or it can identify the amount of proof necessary to establish a factual issue. The latter idea is sometimes referred to as the burden of persuasion. You can think of the burden of proof as referring to the jumper and the burden of persuasion as the bar the jumper must clear.

In the criminal context, let's use a murder case to highlight the difference. If the state charges a person with murder, the prosecution bears the burden of proof and the burden of persuasion. It's up to the state to prove the person committed the murder, and they must prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.

2. It's Crazy High.

We've probably all heard the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" as well, but what does that mean? As a burden of persuasion in criminal cases, this bar is the highest standard of proof in any trial. (Consider that the bar in civil cases is a "preponderance of evidence," or generally enough evidence to make it more likely than not that the claim is true, which some have referred to as 51 percent.)

No such percentage can be applied to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard (the Supreme Court won't allow it), but it is usually defined as "no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty." Unless this high bar is met, the presumption of innocence remains, and a person should be found not guilty.

3. It Can Shift.

As explained above, the initial burden of proof in a criminal case lies with the prosecution, but this can change in certain circumstances. One such circumstance: If a criminal defendant claims an affirmative defense, then the defendant would bear the burden of proving that defense.

To take our murder case above, if the defendant claims he or she was not guilty due to insanity (an affirmative defense), the burden would shift from the prosecution to the defendant to prove he or she was in fact insane. In states that allow an insanity defense, the burden of persuasion is "clear and convincing evidence," a bar somewhere between the civil preponderance of the evidence and the criminal beyond a reasonable doubt.

The more complex the criminal case, the more the burden of proof can become an issue. And while the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard exists for every criminal charge, meeting and challenging that standard can get complicated. If you've been charged with a crime, an experienced criminal law attorney may help to clarify matters for you.

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