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Reasonable Doubt in a Criminal Case in California

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Jan 29, 2019

The bottom line is that the prosecutors in any case in Los Angeles, whether it be a misdemeanor or a felony, have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Now trying to figure out exactly what that means is not always easy.  There's a jury instruction — and the jury instructions that are used in Los Angeles are the CALCRIM 103 – Reasonable Doubt.  It basically says, the Judge tells the jury, I will now explain the presumption of innocence and the People's burden of proof.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty to the charges.  The fact that a criminal charge has been filed against a defendant is not evidence that the charge is true.  You must not be biased against a defendant just because he or she has been arrested, charged with a crime or brought to trial.

This is the start of the explanation of beyond a reasonable doubt because it talks about that when the trial starts, a defendant has a presumption of innocence, meaning that they're presumed innocent, so if the jury had to vote right then, they'd have to vote not guilty, and I ask that question a lot in order to emphasize this very important point.

Burden of Proof

It also says the People have the burden of proof.  That means, whoever is prosecuting the case — whether they be the District Attorney, the City Attorney, in a federal case the Assistant United States Attorney — they must prove the case, and if they don't prove the case then there's not any type of a guilty verdict.

The bottom line is, if they don't prove the case, the defense can rest on the state of the evidence, meaning they can say listen, these guys haven't proved the case.  I don't have to say a word because if they haven't proved all the elements of what they've charged the client with, it's a not guilty verdict.

Another thing it's talking about — and this is definitely true in criminal cases, and it's important that they put this because a lot of people think this way — just because somebody is charged doesn't mean they're guilty.  Just because somebody is charged, you shouldn't be looking at that person in a negative light.  You should keep an open mind, listen to the evidence and if the prosecutors can't prove their case then you should find the defendant not guilty.

Presumption of Innocence

The instruction goes on by the Judge to the jury and it says a defendant in a criminal case is presumed to be innocent.  This presumption requires that the People prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Whenever I tell you the People must prove something, I mean they must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt unless I specifically tell you otherwise.

This is where it starts to become very nebulous and confusing because they just keep mentioning the term reasonable doubt over and over again. I think what it really boils down to is, a jury is going to listen to the evidence and if they don't feel that this person should be convicted of this particular crime, they're going to find him not guilty.

There are some other terms that they use, but they just keep saying beyond a reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence over and over again, thinking somehow that's going to explain exactly what the standard is, because really, that's what the jurors are looking at.

I've done a lot of trials and I see them come back and say, we don't totally understand this instruction, and they're really just looking for guidance on what the prosecutors have to prove and to what degree do they have to prove it.  It's not just a preponderance of the evidence (more than 50%).  It's something higher than that, but it really needs to be explained to the jurors and that's what I try to do in the closing argument when I look at this.

Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

So, the instruction goes on, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you with an abiding conviction that the charge is true.  The evidence need not eliminate all possible doubt because everything in life is open to some possible or imaginary doubt.  You see how they're going back and forth.

One side for the defense; one side for the prosecution.  Obviously, when I argue I'm going to argue the defense point.  When they look back ten years from now, they're going to have to say, okay, I feel confident that the person is guilty if that's their finding.

But if they can't do that, if they're not sure, if they don't think the prosecution has put all the evidence on then it's a not guilty verdict, period.  They should do that very quickly and very easily because of that presumption of innocence.

The last thing the judge reads to the jury in a criminal case when they're talking about the whole concept of beyond a reasonable doubt is, in deciding whether the People have proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, you must impartially compare and consider all of the evidence that was received throughout the entire trial.  Unless the evidence proves the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they are entitled to an acquittal and you must find them not guilty.

Again, they're going to keep saying the term reasonable doubt without really spelling it out and explaining it.  I just think that they feel — the Judges who put together these jury instructions in Los Angeles Criminal Courts — that that's just as good as they're going to do it, that it can't get much better than that and people are just going to have to listen to the evidence, get a feel for it and then make an informed decision about whether or not the prosecutors have brought enough evidence so they feel comfortable finding the defendant guilty, or if they feel the defense has put on a very strong argument, they feel confident finding the defendant not guilty.

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.