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Under American law—specifically, under the due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment (applicable under federal jurisdiction) and the Fourteenth Amendment (applicable under the jurisdiction of any of the several states of the Union)—the accused have a right to have their criminal cases proved against them beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). This is the highest standard of proof available, and it is only used in criminal cases. Moreover, the defendant is presumed innocent at the beginning of trial, and the prosecution alone has the burden of overcoming that presumption. Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 309 (1880).

So, what does this really mean? In lay terms, there is almost no room for error: The “finder of fact,” which may be a jury or a judge, must be satisfied that the defendant almost certainly committed the crime in question. Winship at 363. If there is any real question that the defendant committed the crime, the prosecution has not proved its case, and the finder of fact has a duty to not convict. Id.

What if the finder of fact just does not think in terms of whether the prosecution has a near-perfect case? Perhaps the finder is prejudiced in favor of or against one side, or persists in thinking of terms of who has the better argument rather than in terms of whether the prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps no amount of persuasion or court instruction will sway such a finder to act in accordance with due process. Nevertheless, the finder of fact, as the name suggests, has the ability to determine what supposedly happened, effectively giving it great power over the fate of the accused. Id. at 363-364.

The safeguards against unreasonable convictions that trial courts might allow to stand lie in the appellate processes. A typical post-trial procedure might begin with a motion for a new trial, and may cite, as an error of the trial, something along the lines of, “No reasonable trier [i.e., ‘finder’] of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). This kind of motion is generally heard by the same judge that presided over the trial, and is often denied.

In a case that reaches an appellate court, the appellant (formerly referred to as the “defendant”) no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence. District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, 557 U.S. 52, 68-69 (2009). Moreover, against a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, the reviewing court does not inquire as to whether the appellant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: Instead, the reviewing court inquires into whether, upon viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury’s verdict, a rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson at 319. A way of looking at this in lay terms might be that, on appeal, the game has changed considerably, and the cards are stacked so that the appellant’s case has become much harder as the reviewing court will look at the prosecution’s case with favor. Effectively, appellants often have a very difficult time prevailing on appeal.

Once convicted, the accused are placed in very precarious positions. Thus, the finders of fact, plain and simple, play a pivotal role in the fates of the accused, and the function of American criminal justice systems relies heavily on the finders’ abilities to properly apply the legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

 

scales of justice

Jason Cummock

Jason Cummock

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