We require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a person of a crime. The logic is simple: “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.”
Voltaire’s line sums a wonderful difference between our legal system here in the United States and the vast majority of legal systems throughout the world: We have made the active decision to protect those charged with crimes from the accusers and the accusation itself.
Our legal system allows certain rights and presumptions about the accused: the right to a jury trial, the presumption of innocence, the right to cross-examine witnesses against us, the right to call witnesses on our own behalf, the right to remain silent, and to require the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is because we would rather set a guilty person free than incarcerate the innocent that we enjoy these rights.
Let me take a minute to discuss just one of those rights. The state’s attorneys will often say that a decision proved beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard by which “ordinarily prudent men and women would act upon in their most important affairs.” In fact, a judge will tell the jury about the same thing. The somewhat nonsensical phrase comes from a Criminal Jury Instruction Guide or “CRIMJIG”. (The quoted phrase is from CRIMJIG 3.03.) The state’s attorney usually gives examples to clarify the phrase, such as deciding whom to marry or which house to buy.
Yet, when a trial is over, the jury’s decision is final. People may buy homes they later regret. They may also marry spouses they later regret. We can undo those decisions. We can sell the house or divorce the spouse. May the jury undo a conviction at trial if they change their minds? No. That is why the right to a trial and finding good representation is so important. It is also why we hold the state to a high standard of proof.
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