If you are ever charged with a serious crime and you are looking at possible jail time, the most important phrase you will hear and learn about is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What this means is that in a criminal trial, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. However, the legal definition of this phrase is open to interpretation – meaning that as a criminal defense lawyer, I am constantly arguing with the district attorney and trying to convince the jury that the State has not proved the elements of the crime against my client beyond a reasonable doubt.
Recently, in a criminal trial in South Louisiana, a judge returned a verdict finding the defendant not guilty of second degree murder. There was some evidence that the defendant may have committed the murder, but the judge did not feel that the evidence was sufficient to meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
An Example from a Second Degree Murder Trial
This is how the legal protection of beyond a reasonable doubt could work in a hypothetical situation: A defendant is arrested and charged with second degree murder because the police had found 3 pieces of evidence tying the defendant to the murder weapon. The evidence includes: 1) contact DNA of the defendant on the handle of the gun, 2) shell casings that matched the gun at the scene of the crime, 3) one of the shell casings from the gun is found hidden in the defendant’s car. The defendant has denied committing the murder, having any contact with the victim or having possession of the gun.
Clearly the defendant has some explaining to do in regard to this evidence. However, the defendant does not have to prove anything – the State has the burden of proof and must demonstrate the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes reasonable doubt is defined as no other logical explanation for the evidence in question.
Evaluating the Evidence
The casings were found near the victim and matched the gun and the defendant’s DNA was on the gun. This does not actually mean that the defendant used the weapon to kill the victim – there may be other reasons his DNA was on the handle of the gun. Maybe he got into an argument with the victim and there was a struggle over the gun. Remember the defendant does not have to prove this – the State has the entire burden of proof. The casing hidden in the car certainly looks bad for the defendant, but it is still just suggestion and speculation that perhaps the victim used the gun to commit murder and then hid the casing. It looks like this could be a possibility, but a possibility is not beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt is when there is no other legal or logical explanation for the evidence at hand.
Basically, the evidence in this case is circumstantial. The State does not have an eyewitness, there is no known motive and there is no other physical evidence except the gun and casings. The State can only tie the defendant to the gun from the DNA contact — there is no powder residue on the defendant’s hands and no testimony from independent eyewitnesses that an argument took place. The evidence, while certainly sufficient cause to arrest the defendant, does not warrant a guilty verdict, because the State cannot meet the appropriate standard of proof – that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
State Has Burden of Proof
The State, or the district attorney’s office, is held to a strict standard of proof because it is attempting to take a United States citizen and place him in jail for the remainder of his life. Second degree murder carries an automatic life sentence in Louisiana. No exceptions, no suspensions, no parole, nothing. If the defendant is convicted of second degree murder, he will go to jail for the rest of his life – he will die in prison. With such serious consequences, we hold the State, as we should, to a strict standard of proof — the state must prove each element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. In this particular case, suggestion and speculation are not sufficient to convict this man of second degree murder.