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Standards of Proof

Trial Lawyer

A standard of proof refers to the level of proof or evidence required to win, and prove, a case.  As a trial lawyer will say, standard of proof is commonly referred as one side’s “burden.”  With each case, there are different standards of proof that must be met.  The three most common standards of proof are preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing, and beyond a reasonable doubt in a trial.

A preponderance of the evidence is the lowest standard of proof and is primarily used in civil cases.  This standard requires that the plaintiff prove that it is more likely than not that the facts are as the plaintiff claims.  With this standard, jurors do not have to be completely convinced on one side.  Instead, the burden requires that the jurors find that there is just over a 50% chance that the facts are as the plaintiff asserts.  

The clear and convincing standard is a higher burden than preponderance of the evidence, but lower than beyond a reasonable doubt.  This standard is applied mostly in civil cases but is used in some aspects of criminal law.  This burden requires that the evidence show that it is probably certain or highly probable the incident occurred.  

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard used in criminal cases.  This standard requires the prosecutor to convince the jury that all elements of the charge have been met beyond a reasonable doubt and that the jury should convict the defendant.  Because criminal cases involve punishments including jail time, the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment requires this standard be met before taking away a person’s freedom.  

The proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard is best understood using an example.  Imagine that a defendant is on trial for first degree murder.  A first-degree murder charge requires that the prosecutor prove that the defendant intentionally killed another person by acting willfully, deliberately and with planning, although each state varies slightly.  Imagine further that the defendant recently found out that his wife was having an affair with his longtime friend.  The defendant buys a gun and plans to kill his friend the next time he sees him.  The defendant sees the old friend a week later, pulls out his gun, fires it, and kills the man instantly.  At trial, the prosecutor must prove these elements conclusively.  For example, if the defendant saw the old friend, confronted him, and then the old friend attacked the defendant him which caused the defendant to act in self-defense and shoot the old friend, there would be a reasonable doubt as to whether the murder was deliberate and planned.  In such a case, the standard of proof was likely not met. Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on standards of proof. If you have any further questions regarding standards of proof, do not hesitate to contact a dedicated and experienced lawyer near you. A legal professional can help guide you through the process, because every major and minor legal decision really matters in your case.