You’ve undoubtedly heard that a person charged with a crime can be convicted only if the judge or jury is persuaded that he or she is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even those who have never been charged with a crime or involved in the judicial process are familiar with that phrase, whether from high school civics class or a favorite television show.
However, most people are a bit less clear about exactly what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means, how it is applied in a criminal proceeding, and when a jury must make that determination.
Reasonable Doubt in Ohio
Securing a criminal conviction requires that the state prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and Ohio law describes that standard in greater detail. In ORC 2901.05 Burden of proof – reasonable doubt – self-defense, reasonable doubt is defined:
“Reasonable doubt” is present when the jurors, after they have carefully considered and compared all evidence, cannot say that they are firmly convinced of the truth of the charge. It is a doubt based on reason and common sense. Reasonable doubt is not mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs or depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of the person’s own affairs.
For a Criminal Conviction, the Prosecution Must Prove Every Element Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The analysis as to whether the prosecution has proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is more technical than many people suspect. Most crimes are broken out into multiple elements necessary to support a criminal conviction. Each of those elements must individually be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, a person is guilty of burglary under Ohio law if (and only if) he or she:
- by force, stealth or deception
- in an occupied structure
- with the purpose of committing a crime within the structure
Each bullet point above is an element of the crime, and the jury must be persuaded of each beyond a reasonable doubt.
So, for example, if a juror was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had trespassed by force in a structure with the purpose of committing a crime, but only found it likely that the structure was occupied at the time, that juror could not in good faith vote for conviction.
Similarly, if jurors determined that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had trespassed by force in an occupied structure, but only suspected that the accused had intended to commit a crime within the structure, the prosecution would not have met its burden and a criminal conviction would not be appropriate.
Every Juror Must Find the Defendant Guilty Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Anyone charged with a crime other than a “minor misdemeanor” in Ohio is entitled to a trial by jury. The size of the jury is determined by the seriousness of the crime, but one important element remains the same: the jury must reach a unanimous verdict. If all jurors determine that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each element of the crime, a criminal conviction may be entered. If the jurors agree that the defendant is not guilty, the defendant will be acquitted. But, if the jurors split and cannot come to an agreement, the court must declare a mistrial. In that case, the prosecution may or may not choose to try the case again.
Holding the Prosecution to its Burden of Proof
One of the most important functions of an experienced criminal defense attorney is to hold the prosecution to its burden of proof at every stage, whether that means moving to dismiss the charges early in the process or highlighting the missing elements in the prosecution’s case at trial. Simply telling your side of the story is rarely sufficient to secure an acquittal.
If you have been charged with a crime in Ohio, schedule a consultation with a seasoned criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. In Lake County, call 440.946.7656. In Cuyahoga County, call 216.861.4211