What is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
These days it seems like everyone is talking about Steven Avery and the Netflix docuseries “Making a Murderer.” The news networks and social media have had a field day with the high profile case out of Wisconsin. There is even a misguided petition to the President of the United States, Barack Obama, seeking Avery’s release. Along with all of this buzz, many people keep wondering about the burden of proof for the government. Specifically, people want to know what it means to prove a case “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?”
A discussion of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” must begin with a reference to the “presumption of innocence.” In a criminal trial, a defendant is presumed to be innocent. This means the defendant does not have to present any evidence nor are they ever required to testify in their own trial. The burden is on the government to prove guilt. This also means the accused must be found not guilty unless and until the government has shown enough evidence to convince the trier-of-fact (judge or jury) of the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Alternatively, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” does not require the government to disprove every possibility or theory of innocence. It is often times impossible for the government to prove every fact of a case. Ultimately, the government is required to prove more than a mere suspicion or probability of guilt; the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
What does this mean for Steven Avery? Nothing. The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As you can tell, from reading above, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a subjective determination and often means something different from person to person. This is why we empanel juries of more than one to make these types of decisions. Steven Avery was given his trial and a jury of twelve found the evidence sufficient to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is after discovered evidence which would have likely impacted the jury’s verdict, then Avery will have post-conviction relief to pursue. Until such evidence is found, Avery will continue to serve his sentence and likely pursue other post-conviction appellate remedies.