Introduction to Burdens of Proof in a Criminal Case

introduction to Burdens of Proof in a Criminal CaseYou might hear the term “burden of proof” when in court, or generally talking about a legal case – and you might wonder, what does that mean? Well, generally speaking, the burden of proof is defined as the duty placed upon a party (plaintiff or defendant) to prove or disprove a disputed fact.[i] Also, the type of case will depend on what burden of proof will be required for the case. Now, evidence is a crucial part to any trial – especially criminal trials. When evidence is not admissible, meaning it cannot be presented to the jury, it can cause problems for the prosecution when meeting their burden of proof. If there is an issue with the evidence, and the judge does not admit that evidence, it could result in a not guilty decision for the defendant: like in the OJ trial.

The Burden of Proof in a Civil Case

Every case has a burden of proof that the prosecution must prove. For civil cases, that burden of proof in proving the prosecutions case be a preponderance of the evidence.[ii] A preponderance of the evidence means that the prosecution needs to show to the jury, or the judge, that the proposition is more likely true than not true.

The burden requirement of a civil case is not nearly as strict as the burden of proof required in a criminal prosecution. This is primarily because in a criminal case, the defendant’s constitutional rights are on the line, as compared to a civil case where just money is on the line. It makes sense that the burden in a criminal case would be much higher than the burden in a civil case.

The Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case

The burden of proof in a criminal case is much higher than the burden of proof required in a civil case. Generally speaking, the prosecution has the burden to prove every element of the crime the defendant has been charged with, beyond a reasonable doubt.[iii] That means, that even if there are 15 elements to a crime, the prosecution has to prove each and every element of that crime and must do so beyond a reasonable doubt.[iv] But what does beyond a reasonable doubt actually mean? This means simply that, if any juror has any doubt in their mind while deciding the fate of the defendant – they cannot find the defendant guilty. They must be completely sure that the defendant committed the crime, based upon the evidence presented at trial. Proving a case to this extent can be challenging to do, but it is crucial that the rules are followed properly, otherwise the defendant will have their constitutional rights violated.

Burdens of Proof in a Criminal Case and reasonable doubtIt is important to note that the defendant does not have any requirements, or burdens, to prove that they are innocent.[v] The work of the legal defense team will do their best to show that there are holes in the prosecutions story. The biggest job of the legal defense team is to put doubt into the minds of the jury. This can be accomplished through eye witness testimony and other forms of evidence. For example, the prosecution might have presented testimony that the defendant was at the scene of the crime shortly before the crime was committed. This does not look good for the defendant. But, the defense might then present evidence in the form of security footage that shows the defendant across town at the time the eye witness claimed they saw them. Even though either piece of evidence might not be the most reliable for one reason or another, the fact that both pieces of evidence have been admitted into court, and therefore seen by the jury, means that the jury may start to doubt whether or not the defendant was at the scene of the crime.

The Importance of Evidence for the Burden of Proof at a Criminal Trial

Evidence is a vital key to any criminal prosecution. Without evidence, it is a game of “he said” “she said”, and then the jury has to decide who is more credible. It is more likely that a jury would find the defendant not guilty because there would not be enough evidence to erase all doubt in the mind of the jury. So, what is evidence? Evidence is every type of proof legally presented at trial, which is intended to convince the judge and/or the jury of the alleged facts that are material to the case.[vi] Legally presentable evidence at court means that the judge determined the evidence was admissible. Evidence can include: oral testimony of witnesses (including lay person and expert), documents, public records, objects, photographs, videos, depositions, and anything else a judge deems admissible into court.[vii]

evidence and Burdens of Proof in a Criminal CaseLawyers spend three years in law school to understand that law, but their job in regards to evidence is to present that evidence to the court. The lawyers are not apart of the gathering of evidence, even though they are trained in law school to understand how evidence should be obtained (which is especially important for the defense side, if they need to argue evidence should not be admissible), they are not the people in charge of collecting evidence. The police are in charge arresting alleged criminals and collecting evidence against that person. There are many steps required to ensure that the constitutional rights of an individual is not violated. If a police officer improperly stops a vehicle, then searches that vehicle only to find marijuana – well the evidence of that marijuana might not be admissible in court. If the court finds that the police officer did not properly stop the individual, then anything after that illegal stop will not be admissible in court.[viii] Without the evidence of the marijuana in the car, it would be nearly impossible to prove the case and the prosecution would likely drop the charges.

How Evidence Affected the Outcome of the OJ Simpson Case

On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were fatally stabbed and found the following morning.[ix] OJ Simpson, Nicole’s ex-husband, was acquitted of her and Ronald Goldman’s murder on October 3, 1995.[x] The crime scene was incredibly gruesome, with DNA evidence left all about – so how exactly did OJ Simpson was away from this trial – not guilty? A lot of people believe that OJ Simpson was guilty and they could not understand why he got away with the murder. So, what went wrong in this case to have an outcome where OJ Simpson walked away?

Burdens of Proof in a Criminal Case regarding OJ simpson and a not guilty verdictA lot of that had to do with the evidence at trial. For starters, the OJ Simpson case created a benchmark for what not to do for police officers when it came to collecting evidence at a crime scene.[xi] A LOT of the evidence that was collected at the crime scene was either improperly collected, or it was contaminated shortly after collection. For example, evidence was collected and then left in a van during the hot day – which caused a lot of issues and could not be used at trial.[xii] There were a lot of oversights of evidence and missed opportunities. Another big issue, even though it could be easily corrected, was when one of the technicians took OJ Simpson’s blood sample; he did not store it immediately for testing.[xiii] Rather, he took it with him in his pocket to join other technicians at the crime scene later that day.[xiv] Gathering evidence in such a lazy manner, without any regard to the severity of the crime and how important evidence was, was a large reason why the case fell apart at trial.

Even though there were other issues involved with the OJ Simpson case, the fact that so much of the evidence was unable to be used in court had a lot to do with the result of the case. The collection of evidence from this case was done so poorly, that procedures and protocols of Las Angeles Police Department were completely revamped to avoid these types of issues in the future.[xv]

Now, even though the prosecution was unable to meet their burden of beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal trial, the court did find OJ Simpson liable for Nicole Brown Simpson’s death at the civil trial.[xvi] This caused a lot of confusion, and outcry but it is important to note that there is a big difference between the criminal trial and the civil trial. For starters, as previously discussed, the civil trial as a much more lenient burden to prove. At the civil trial, the plaintiff need only prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence.[xvii] This is compared to the criminal trial, where the prosecution has to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and must do so for every single element (not like civil where it is just the overall case is proven by a preponderance of the evidence).[xviii] There are also some rules that will allow evidence that was not admissible at the criminal trial, to be admissible at the civil trial. All of this together made for a much easier case against OJ Simpson and his liability for Nicole’s death.

Even though some people may argue that his liability in the civil case should be proof for the criminal case – that is just not how the justice system works. The criminal and civil cases are completely separate, they require different burdens of proof, and are used to seek different results. A criminal case is used to punish the defendant, if found guilty, and seek justice for the victim – while the civil case is used to find liability from the defendant, and seek financial compensation. Either way, the burdens of proof and evidence are crucial for either case. Call and speak directly with an experienced Phoenix defense attorney at Ariano & Associates, PLLC.

[i] See Burden of Proof The Free Dictionary by Farlex (Accessed August 23, 2016) http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/burden+of+proof

[ii] See Preponderance Cornell University Legal Information Institute (Accessed August 23, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/preponderance

[iii] See Burdens of Proof in Criminal Cases NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 23, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burdens-proof-criminal-cases.html

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] See Evidence Law Terms (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=671

[vii] Id.

[viii] See Police Mistakes Grabel and Associates (Accessed August 23, 2016) https://www.grabellaw.com/police-mistakes.html

[ix] See The OJ Simpson Case Los Angeles Times (Published March 4, 2016) http://www.latimes.com/local/la-oj-simpson-stories-storygallery.html

[x] Id.

[xi] See OJ Simpson case taught police what not to do at a crime scene Police One (Published June 8, 2014) https://www.policeone.com/investigations/articles/7267753-OJ-Simpson-case-taught-police-what-not-to-do-at-a-crime-scene/

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] See OJ Simpson case taught police what not to do at a crime scene Police One (Published June 8, 2014) https://www.policeone.com/investigations/articles/7267753-OJ-Simpson-case-taught-police-what-not-to-do-at-a-crime-scene/

[xvi] See What Does OJ Simpson’s Civil Trial Verdict Mean? “Liable” Does not mean Guilty Bustle (Published April 5, 2016) http://www.bustle.com/articles/152048-what-does-oj-simpsons-civil-trial-verdict-mean-liable-does-not-mean-guilty

[xvii] See Preponderance Cornell University Legal Information Institute (Accessed August 23, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/preponderance

[xviii] See Burdens of Proof in Criminal Cases NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 23, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burdens-proof-criminal-cases.html