What Does "Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt" Mean In Criminal Law?

Various fields of American law have different standards of proof. This represents just how much the accusing side has to do before the defendant should be deemed responsible.

In criminal law, the standard of proof is sometimes referred to as "beyond a shadow of a doubt." Someone dealing with criminal allegations will want to know what that entails so this article takes a look.

A Reasonable Person

At the center of everything in criminal law is the idea of a reasonable person judging the facts. Jurors are expected to be reasonable people, and it's their job to review whatever evidence and arguments a prosecutor and a criminal law attorney might present.

This standard of reasonableness places a limit on what counts as beyond a shadow of a doubt. The doubts in a criminal case have to be reasonable. For example, you can't say with 100% surety that Abraham Lincoln existed. However, a reasonable person would look at the evidence and conclude that only a handful of irrational explanations would propose that he did not.

Similar logic applies to criminal law. There's no way to be absolutely sure that a defendant in a shooting case shot someone. However, a reasonable person reviewing the evidence might conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that this version of events is correct.

Why This Matters

For a criminal law attorney, the job is rarely about proving anything. It's about making the prosecution meet its burden to prove its accusations beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is why lawyers often try to cast doubt on testimony and evidence.

If the police claim that someone was using drugs, for example, the first thing an attorney wants to see is what evidence the cops have. What proof is there that the substance in question is an illicit drug? Have the police maintained a detailed chain of custody for the evidence? What tests did the state perform to prove they were drugs?

In such a case, a criminal law attorney might look into the testing processes. Certain kinds of equipment are known to produce more false positives, for example. Also, technicians make mistakes during tests.

Other Standards in Criminal Law

Notably, the "beyond a shadow of a doubt" standard doesn't kick in until trial. During initial hearings, lesser standards may be used for judging whether an arrest was appropriate. Until you get to trial, the state must merely show that a reasonable person would suspect a crime might have happened.

For more information, contact a criminal law attorney.