John Helms Dallas criminal lawyer discusses “beyond a reasonable doubt”—an elusive but fundamental concept for criminal defense attorneys.
Almost everyone has heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is the standard that the government’s proof must meet in order for a jury to find a defendant guilty of a crime, explains John Helms, Dallas criminal lawyer. It is also an elusive concept that is sometimes difficult for jurors to grasp. I also believe that some prosecutors try to convince jurors that it is a lower standard than it is. If jurors accept this argument, they could find someone guilty of a crime based on a lower showing than our law requires. This article discusses how defense counsel can respond to the prosecutor’s arguments to protect the rights of the accused.
In 2000, in a case called Paulson v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas’ highest criminal appeals court), told Texas criminal trial courts that they should not try to define “beyond a reasonable doubt” in their instructions to juries about the law they must follow. The Court of Criminal Appeals decided that the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is difficult to define and that trial judges are better off not even trying.
I have heard multiple prosecutors tell potential jurors during jury selection that there is “no definition” of beyond a reasonable doubt in Texas and that, therefore, “beyond a reasonable doubt” can mean whatever the potential juror wants it to mean. This invites jurors to believe that they can find a defendant guilty based on whatever level of proof they want. In other words, it invites a juror to think, for example, in a terrorism case, “Terrorism is so dangerous and scary that I think this man should be found guilty if there is any risk that he is guilty.” THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT THE LAW.
The fact that Texas courts do not have a definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt” does NOT mean that the phrase can mean “whatever you want it to mean.” It does NOT, mean, for example, that it is “probable” or “more likely than not” that someone is guilty. This is the standard of proof in civil cases—when someone is suing someone else to recover money damages, like if someone injures you in a car wreck, and you sue them for your medical bills and pain and suffering. The civil standard of proof has been described this way: If a feather is placed on one side of the scales of justice, and it tips just slightly, that is enough for a finding of liability in a civil case. But we KNOW that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a much higher standard than this.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is also a higher standard than “clear and convincing evidence.” In order to be able to take your child away from you, for example, the state must prove that you are a danger to the child by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is higher than the civil standard, but it is lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” So, again, we KNOW that “beyond a reasonable doubt” means more proof than “clear and convincing.”
In some types of cases, such as child abuse cases, many jurors will instinctively want to find a defendant guilty based on less proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is because they may identify with, and sympathize with, an alleged victim who is vulnerable. There is a saying that it is better to let ten guilty persons go free than to convict one innocent person. Jurors, however, may feel that, if the alleged victim is a child and the defendant is accused of horrible conduct, it is better to convict an innocent person than to let a guilty person go free.
In these types of cases, it is absolutely critical for a criminal defense lawyer to emphasize that the law requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” what this means, and why it is the law, from the beginning of trial to the end—in jury selection, in opening statement, during the trial, and in closing argument. I tell jurors that I may sound like a broken record, but I also point out to them that the court’s instructions to them uses the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” over and over again. In other words, emphasizing the burden of proof is not just something I do. Our law does it, too.
Very few criminal trials have a “Perry Mason moment,” in which some evidence comes out during trial that absolutely proves the defendant’s innocence. This means that the law’s requirement that the government prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is critical in almost every case.
I have developed my approach to explaining “beyond a reasonable doubt” over the course of my career as a Dallas criminal defense lawyer. I am also constantly refining it. I have charts and graphics that I show potential jurors during jury selection that I continue to revise. I also tailor my approach to each individual case based on the kind of evidence I expect against my client and what I hear from jurors during jury selection. Prosecutors talk to each other about what works, and they get to training to help them be more effective, so I also keep up with the kinds of arguments and approaches prosecutors are using so that I can be prepared to respond to them. All of these things are crucial for criminal defense lawyers to be effective on an issue of great importance to their clients.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in the Dallas area, you should strongly consider hiring someone who really knows the ins and outs of the law. Contact Dallas criminal lawyer John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.