If this is your first time being charged with a crime, you may know from popular culture that your case must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what does that mean? What is reasonable doubt in a Colorado criminal case? Who gets to decide? And what can you do to affect their decision?
This blog post will explain the criminal court standard of “reasonable doubt”. It will explain what the prosecutor and the defendant each must prove in a criminal case. It will also review strategies you can use to create reasonable doubt if you have been charged with a crime you didn’t commit.
A Sample Colorado Criminal Case
Let’s make up a sample Colorado criminal case to make it easier to understand what reasonable doubt is and how it is proven:
Danny agreed to be the designated driver for his brother Ben and cousin Carrie. While Ben and Carrie were drinking at the bar, Danny entertained himself by playing pool with an acquaintance, Anna. At some point in the evening, Carrie and another patron Vince got into an argument that turned physical.
When the police arrived they found that Vince had been struck and seriously injured. They also found a broken pool cue. Because Anna said she and Danny were playing pool, Danny was charged with First Degree Assault. When he heard that he could face ten to 32 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000, Danny decided to hire a criminal defense attorney to help him defend his case.
Criminal Charges Come Down to Trying to Prove What Really Happened
Every criminal charge — from traffic offenses to murder — can be broken down into elements. It is up to the prosecutor to prove that what really happened satisfies each element of the crime. In our sample assault case, those elements are:
- This defendant (Danny)
- Intended (meant to)
- And caused
- Serious bodily harm
- To another person (Vince)
- Using a deadly weapon (the pool cue)
If any one element is missing, the prosecutor has not proved his or her case and the defendant cannot be convicted. How certain the decision-maker needs to be is called the “burden of proof.” Colorado criminal cases carry the highest burden of proof: beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is Reasonable Doubt?
In the United States, and specifically in Colorado, every person charged with a crime is assumed to be innocent until the prosecutor presents enough evidence to prove him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That means that using ordinary reason and common sense, and considering all the evidence or lack of evidence in the case, a normal person would not hesitate to say the person is guilty.
That’s not to say that every doubt is reasonable. Sometimes decision-makers may have a vague feeling that they didn’t get the whole story. They could imagine a situation where doubt exists. Or they may be able to come up with a story in which the defendant didn’t commit the crime. However, these unreasonable doubts are not enough to help a criminal defendant like Danny avoid a conviction.
Who Decides if There is Reasonable Doubt?
When you are putting on a show, it’s important to know who the audience is. In a criminal case, it can be tempting to put all your attention on the judge. After all, he or she presides over the case, is present at every hearing, and makes important decisions about evidence, bail, and other issues. But the judge is not the final decision-maker in a criminal case.
Every defendant facing a felony or misdemeanor charge with a possible punishment of at least 6 months in jail has the right to have his or her case decided by a jury. A jury is made up of 6 to 12 people from the local community, who deliberate together to decide whether the prosecutor has met his or her burden of proof and proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This can sometimes work in a person like Danny’s favor. Because jurors are not legally trained judges, they are more likely to apply common sense to the case than get hung up on legal technicalities.
How Criminal Defense Attorneys Create Reasonable Doubt
It is up to the prosecutor to prove his or her case. But that doesn’t mean your criminal defense attorney can just sit back and watch. In the weeks and months leading up to your jury trial, you can work with your lawyer to find the holes in the prosecutor’s arguments and make them bigger.
Let’s go back to Danny’s case. It’s pretty clear that somebody caused serious bodily harm to Vince. There is some evidence that they used a pool cue to do it, since it was found broken nearby. Medical records may also show that Vince’s injuries could have been caused by a round wooden pole. However, if that is all the police are able to prove, there will still be a reasonable doubt that Danny was the one who committed the assault.
This is where the defense attorney can step in and create reasonable doubt. In interviewing Ben, Carrie, and Anna, Danny’s attorney learned that none of them actually saw Danny hit Vince with the pool cue. Anna could even testify that he was not near Vince when the fight broke out. When he testified at trial, Vince may have been able to identify Danny as a person in the bar, but Danny’s criminal defense attorney can ask questions to make him, and the jury, doubt whether it was Danny that landed the blow.
Danny’s attorney also has a number of tools at his or her disposal to make it harder for the prosecutor to prove his or her case. Evidence rules limit what the jury may consider (or even see). There may be reasons to exclude a doctor’s report or physical evidence that was not handled properly before trial. In that case the criminal defense attorney can file motions with the court asking the judge to exclude that improper evidence. This can create holes in the prosecution’s case and make it more likely that the jury will find reasonable doubt exists.
Unlike on TV, most not-guilty verdicts aren’t because of a mid-trial confession by the true guilty party. Danny shouldn’t expect Carrie to get on the stand and admit to fighting Vince. Instead, most of the time, when a defendant beats Colorado criminal charges it is because all the evidence just doesn’t add up to certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.
At Aviso Law, LLC, our criminal defense attorneys have extensive experience within the Colorado court system. We are here to serve you and help you avoid a life-changing criminal conviction. We will help you identify weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case, and any defenses you may have, so you can put your best case forward at trial. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.