Those who have served on a jury in a criminal case are told that the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt before the jury can return a verdict of guilty. This burden is recognized as the highest burden in the American legal system. Its purpose is to ensure that before a person’s liberty can be taken away, the government must meet a high standard of proof, the highest standard of proof.
What proof beyond a reasonable doubt means to a juror is based in large part on the instructions given by the judge. The clarity and quality of the jury instruction on reasonable doubt is important because if the jurors do not understand what proof beyond a reasonable doubt means, a person may be improperly convicted.
The definition of reasonable doubt varies based upon whether the case is being tried in a Florida state court or a federal court. In the state courts of Florida, the standard jury instruction on reasonable doubt is:
A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing, and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which waivers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.
In United States District Courts in Florida, the jury is told that a reasonable doubt is:
The Government’s burden of proof is heavy, but it doesn’t have to prove a defendant is guilty beyond all possible doubt. The Government’s proof only has to exclude any reasonable doubt concerning the defendant’s guilt.
A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on your reason and common sense after you’ve carefully and impartially considered all the evidence in the case. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof so convincing that you would be willing to rely and act on it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs. If you are convinced that the defendant has been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, say so. If you are not convinced, say so.
While these two versions of the definition of reasonable doubt attempt to define the same term, it is obvious that the wording is not the same. Some have argued that under the Florida definition there is little help to a jury since the definition seems to be less than clear. The definition is somewhat circular in that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is defined as an abiding conviction of guilt which does not waver. The federal definition of reasonable doubt compares a reasonable doubt to facts which a person would be willing to rely and act without hesitation in the most important of a juror’s own affairs. While this is somewhat helpful it may be subject to different interpretations.
In an attempt to help jurors understand the meaning of reasonable doubt, it may be helpful to have the court define standards of proof involved in civil cases. When giving this information, the court can stress that the standards of proof in civil cases are not as stringent as proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases.
In most civil cases, for example an automobile accident or a breach of contract case, the standard of proof is by the "greater weight of the evidence" which is also referred to as "the preponderance of the evidence". Courts generally describe this burden of proof by describing it as the proof which is more persuasive and convincing force and effect of the entire evidence in the case. It is also described as proof that persuades the jury that one party's claim is more likely true than not. Many judges will further describe this standard of proof by referencing a scale in saying that the burden of proof is met as long as the evidence is slightly in the favor of one party. The scale is just slightly tilted in favor of the plaintiff or defendant.
The court could also advise the jurors that in addition to the preponderance standard, there is another burden of proof which is higher than the preponderance or greater weight of the evidence. This is called proof by clear and convincing evidence. The State of Florida defines this burden of proof in the following language:
Clear and convincing evidence differs from the "greater weight of the evidence" in that it is more compelling and persuasive. Clear and convincing evidence is evidence that is precise, explicit, lacking in confusion, and of such weight that it produces a firm belief or conviction, without hesitation about the matter in issue.
Federal Courts in Florida define clear and convincing evidence as:
Sometimes a party has the burden of proving a claim or defense by clear and convincing evidence. This is a higher standard of proof than proof by a preponderance of the evidence. It means the evidence must persuade you that the claim or defense is highly probable or reasonably certain.
In order to help jurors understand the meaning of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, jurors should be instructed as to the meaning of the lighter burden of proof known as the greater weight of the evidence and proof by clear and convincing evidence, that are used in civil cases.