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The Principle of Reasonable Doubt and the Presumption of Innocence

One of the most important legal principles of the criminal justice system in the United States is known as the “presumption of innocence.” This means that every defendant – every individual who is arrested and charged with a criminal offense – is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty in a court of law.Whether a case is tried in state or federal court, the prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The duty is upon the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt, not upon the accused to prove his or her innocence.

“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” – What Does This Mean?

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is both a legal term and a legal principal. In the hallmark case In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), the United States Supreme Court held that every element of an offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, not to the lesser and easier to prove “preponderance of the evidence” standard. But what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

  • Evidence that convinces reasonable persons beyond doubt
  • Doubt that is based on thought, reason and careful consideration of the evidence presented in the case
  • This does not mean “beyond the shadow of a doubt;” therefore, some doubt may exist

How Florida’s Jury Instructions Explains Reasonable Doubt

In the Florida Supreme Court Standard Jury Instructions, Criminal Cases, 3.7, Plea of Not Guilty; Reasonable Doubt; and Burden of Proof, the following language is used to describe reasonable doubt:

  • “To overcome the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which the defendant is charged was committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime.”
  • “The defendant is not required to present evidence or prove anything.”
  • “Whenever the words “reasonable doubt” are used you must consider the following:”
  • “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 wavers 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.”
  • “It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.”
  • “A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or lack of evidence.”
  • “If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty.”

Reasonable Doubt in Your Case and the Criminal Defense Attorney

It is essential for every client to understand that an arrest is not a conviction. It is the duty of the criminal defense lawyer to zealously and effectively defend and represent every client and to challenge the allegations of the prosecution. An effective defense lawyer understands the absolute importance of reasonable doubt in a criminal case. Thus, when appropriate, the skilled defense attorney will utilize reasonable doubt while crafting and implementing his client's legal defensive strategy.As the jury instructions above state, “If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty.”For more than 33 years, Attorney David W. Olson has provided aggressive and skilled criminal defense to thousands of adult and juvenile clients. He represents clients in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, Broward County, Miami-Dade County, South Florida and throughout the state.


In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970);Florida Supreme Court Standard Jury Instructions, Criminal Cases, 3.7. Plea of Not Guilty; Reasonable Doubt; and Burden of Proof

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