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Understanding the Burden of Proof and Presumption of Innocence in Criminal Cases

In any criminal trial in Arizona, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the defense. This is a core tenet of the criminal justice system which ensures the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But what is the burden of proof, and how did presumption of innocence come to be? This article aims to dive into these concepts, their meanings, and how criminal defense attorneys strategize around them.

The Standards for the Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is a standard utilized by courts to describe the level of evidence needed to legally establish and prove a fact. There are three standards for the burden of proof, cited from Arizona Criminal Jury Instructions 4(b):

  • Preponderance of the evidence: A party with this burden must persuade you, by the evidence, that the claim or a fact is more probably true than not true. This means the evidence that favors that party outweighs the opposing evidence.
  • Clear and convincing evidence: A party with this burden must persuade you, by the evidence, that the claim or fact is highly probable. This standard is higher than the standard for proof by a preponderance of the evidence but is lower than the standard for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Beyond a reasonable doubt: (detailed in next section)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

For criminal defense, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. This means it is on the prosecution to prove you committed a crime, rather than on the defense to prove you did not commit a crime. The specific burden to find an accused individual guilty is beyond a reasonable doubt.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is a tricky concept to explain, but generally it represents a high burden which is more stringent than the other two burdens. From the Preliminary Arizona Criminal Jury Instruction 20:

The State has charged the defendant with a crime. The charge is not evidence against the defendant. You must not think the defendant is guilty just because the defendant has been charged with a crime. The defendant has pled “not guilty.” The defendant’s plea of “not guilty” means the State must prove every part of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

The law does not require a defendant to prove innocence. Every defendant is presumed by law to be innocent.

The State has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, it is only necessary to prove that a fact is more likely true than not or that its truth is highly probable. In criminal cases such as this, the State’s proof must be more powerful than that. It must be beyond a reasonable doubt.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt. There are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty, and in criminal cases the law does not require proof that overcomes every doubt. If, based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him/her guilty. If, on the other hand, you think there is a real possibility that he/she is not guilty, you must give him/her the benefit of the doubt and find him/her not guilty.

Presumption of Innocence

Any accused individual is presumed to be innocent unless the prosecution meets or exceeds their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence makes certain that the government does a thorough investigation, and they must be confident that a crime was committed. The presumption of innocence is a vitally important part of criminal defense, but it is not explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. However, it is considered an integral part of due process and equal protection under the law, which is enumerated in the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. It wasn’t always like this however, and it took a pivotal court case entitled Coffin v. United States back in 1895 to create the landmark ruling that influenced criminal justice from that day forward.

Strategies for the Defense

Experienced criminal defense attorneys use the high burden of proof and the presumption of innocence to maximum effect when defending their clients. The defense may challenge evidence presented by the prosecution by questioning its reliability or admissibility. Alternative evidence may also be presented calling into question the prosecution’s argument and giving an alternative viewpoint. All the defense’s efforts are in the shadow of beyond a reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence, and they are two factors the defense may always rely upon to advocate for their clients.

Get Your Arizona Criminal Defense Attorney to Fight Your Charges

Litwak Law Group’s criminal defense attorneys pride themselves on fighting aggressively and professionally for the constitutional rights and freedoms of their clients. Should you be charged a crime in Arizona, contact Litwak Law Group today.