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What is the Prosecutor's burden in proving a defendant's guilt? Have you seen innocent people falsely accused despite evidence of their innocence?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Oct 06, 2007 | 0 Comments

California Criminal Law requires that the state prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This rule applies whether a defendant is accused of a DUI misdemeanor, or a serious felony such as Manslaughter or Murder. "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" is defined as proof that is so strong that each juror has an "abiding conviction in the truth of the charge." This means that each juror's belief about the defendant's guilt is so strong that he would not change his mind later that day, that week, or later than month. This is a very high burden! Even if the juror feels defendant likely did it, but that not beyond a reasonable doubt, he must vote to acquit the defendant. Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyers argue in front of juries daily in Southern California courts, ensuring that the government has met its burden before a unanimous verdict is rendered. Nevertheless, jury decisions are sometimes fallible. The Innocent Project, based on the East Coast, has been involved in litigating on appeal hundreds of cases over the last decade, around the country. This criminal defense consortium has demonstrated that 100s of convicted defendants were later proven innocent through DNA testing, or other means. Many spent years in prison, and some were facing the possibility of the death penalty. 75% of the bad convictions resulted from faulty eyewitness identification, while the others were caused by coerced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, or police hiding exculpatory evidence. The jury trial system is a powerful tool against government abuse. It prevents the state from prosecuting people with contrarian views, outspoken critics, or others with disparate interests. And it works to preclude politicians from pursuing rivals through false criminal claims in the courts. These are often problems in developing countries, and former Eastern Block nations, where the court system is corrupt, and there is no social acceptance of the court system as just and fair. Despite the United States' justice system's Constitutional right to a jury trial, and the right to an effective advocate, the court process does make mistakes. Aggressive criminal defense work is very important to ensuring that the innocent are exonerated. Tagged as: california criminal laws, motion to dismiss unlawful police search


Dorilee Meyer on October 28, 2007 at 8:12 p.m. wrote: The architecture of the US system is founded on a principle of distrust of government. This is why we have three branches of government, checks and balances, etc. It is also why there is a Bill of Rights (think of the Second Amendment, the people have the right to bear arms in case the government turns against them). Within the judicial branch, the prosecution represents the government, and the government has an interest in placating the masses by announcing that they have solved this, that, and the other crime and are, therefore, doing a great job for the people. From a more sinister viewpoint, the government also has an interest in discouraging dissent, which is why the identification of the defendant is made public. (If you don't like publicizing the names of the defendant you can move to China, where they keep the names of 'criminal' defendants confidential). Due to our presumption of innocence, the burden of proof must be on the prosecution. In accordance with the Magna Carta, and subsequent to that, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the accused has a right to due process of law. Placing the burden of proof on the accuser helps to ensure these rights, as well as the right of the accused to 'life, liberty, and property...' As a 'check' on the very real possibility that the prosecutor will abuse his government power, the prosecutor has to convince a group of impartial people at trial. This is the jury of your peers. (The only peer quality you care about in these people is that they do not share the government agenda-- to put you away whether you did it or not). The prosecutor has to convince these agenda-less people that you did the bad thing, and that you had a bad intent. The whole principle behind due process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments is that if we didn't set up a system where you are put on notice of everything the government has on you, the government could simply fabricate things, use false witnesses, etc., in which case the jury system could not afford you any protection. Occasionally you run into blood-thirst on the jury panel, then you can't trust the jury panel and you have a change of venue. The other principle behind putting the burden on the prosecution is the old debate line, which is that the affirmative has the burden. In other words, it is fundamentally unfair to make someone prove a negative, e.g., I couldn't have done the bad act because I was alone in the backyard hitting golf balls at the time. Keep in mind, this last principle is not always followed. For instance, in civil employment termination cases, employers do have to prove a negative, that a firing was not for a bad motive. That leads us back to the principle of distrust of authority, etc... the employer's the bad guy abusing the masses. We are a nation of sheep, these safeguards were intended to keep the wolf at bay. As a practical matter, the safeguards fail when the government takes aim at someone the general public mistrusts even more. Mary Strickland on October 27, 2007 at 9:50 p.m. wrote: To Leah: You should watch 'After Innocence,' a documentary about the Innocence Project. In the documentary the men set free were given no assistance or compensation at all. What makes this particularly ridiculous is that if the men had not been proven innocent, they would have been eligible for housing assistance and other government assistance after their term ended. But because they were proven innocent, they received nothing. This is particularly heartbreaking because most of them lost out on decades of potential income, savings and work experience. By the time they are released they should be ready to retire, but they must keep working because they have no retirement plan, and the only jobs they are able to find are low-paying, entry-level positions. Tyler J. Marik on October 26, 2007 at 3:53 p.m. wrote: I feel that the notion of Kristin Bryan on October 26, 2007 at 2:21 a.m. wrote: No system can be perfect. But when one looks at the alternative European style of having a judge panel or a single judge determine one's fate many will recognize the benefits of the jury trial system. Personally I would feel much better about having twelve U.S. citizens - dealing with similar daily trials and trips in the road - than one high-society judge riding at the top of the social chain. The average citizens would be more likely to have an open mind and take my case with fresh enthusiasm. Even if the judge believes he/she takes each case as its own, I have a hard time thinking that the judge doesn't at least subconsciously revert to previous cases and compare, look at patterns, and find similar signs suggesting guilt or innocence. Although I definitely believe in jury trials, I am also an advocate for judges taking on a little more control. The purpose of our system is to have checks and balances. If the judge allows a lawyer to interrogate a witness for too long or enables an obnoxious amount of interruptions/challenges he/she is not doing his/her job. In the U.S., attorneys often take the most control and adversarial role. In order to make the most out of our system we need to make sure that each player does the job right. Judges need to control the courtroom, maintain efficency and order. Attourneys must fight for their case with determination, clearity, and respect. The jury must own their role and take the job seriously as though it was their own life they were dealing with. Once everyone is actively involved, understanding the responsibility of each position the jury trial system will rise closer to reaching its true potential justice fighting cause. Leah Streiter on October 24, 2007 at 12:32 p.m. wrote: When the justice system realizes they have made a mistake what does the justice system do other then let the person go? Is there 'I'm sorry i messed up your life and you had to be in prison when you were innocent' package? What are the consequences of this does anyone know? athar Mikhail on October 22, 2007 at 9:14 p.m. wrote: wow I just realized that the book Trials without truth addresses and confirms everything I said in my comment. athar Mikhail on October 21, 2007 at 11:45 p.m. wrote: Our criminal justice system is meant to provide justice, equal treatment under the law for all people, and guaranteed rights for all citizens. However, every time our court rooms allow the freeing of a guilty human, our society suffers. We let predators back on the streets due to the fact that they have done their job well and left no marks and thus we have some reasonable doubt that this person has committed the crime. This then allows that person to wonder our streets looking for their next victim. There are many technicalities in our system that allow innocent people their protection, but also allow guilty criminals their freedom. This leads us to the question of whether it is better to imprison or jail an innocent person or to free a guilty person. 'Beyond a reasonable doubt' I believe is a technicality just like the fourth amendment that protects a person from illegal searches and seizures. Both are meant to help the innocent defend their case, but also let the guilty free. I Britney Cronin on October 12, 2007 at 5:13 p.m. wrote: To prove guilt 'beyond a reasonable doubt' is difficult for many reasons. First, although the final verdict of guilty or not guilty is left to the jury's deliberation, it is the responsibility of both the Prosecution and the Defense to present as much 'relevant' evidence as possible. This is difficult for the Prosecution because citizens are held as 'innocent until proven guilty'; thus, the Prosecution begins trial as the underdog. In order to successfully change the minds of the jury and convict the defendant, the Prosecution must work twice as hard to gather the most incriminating evidence and create an argument persuasive enough to change the minds of twelve jurors. On the other hand, the Defense, although difficult, has to present just enough evidence to install doubt in the minds of the jury. Second, the jury is not a collective team of individuals who work together on a regular basis. Rather, the jury is a group of twelve anonymous citizens from all walks of life, coming together (because they were summoned, not as a personal decision they agreed upon), who now must listen to two parties argue a case. Thus, the Prosecution faces another burden of trying to convince twelve people (most of which are not educated in law, nor have a comprehensive view of how the U.S. Trial System operates) that the defendant is, without doubt, guilty of the crime at hand. Lastly, the Prosecution carries the burden of knowing that if they are not successful in proving the defendants guilt, a criminal could be let back into the community to commit more crimes. However, the burden lies on both Prosecution and Defense. In regard to the innocent who have been found guilty, the burden is then in the hands of the Defense. If the Prosecution fails, an innocent man goes free; however, if the Defense fails, an innocent man must serve time for a crime he is not responsible for. Furthermore, the man who is responsible for the crime is still free and can still continue his criminal activity. Thus, it is in the hands of both Prosecution and Defense to take their position with the utmost responsibility and skill possible. -Britney Cronin Afrmrspartan on October 10, 2007 at 9:16 p.m. wrote: Beyond a reasonable doubt is a difficult thing to prove... but shouldn't it be that difficult if the Prosecutor is trying to hard to convict the person. That is another check and balance the jury s and citizens have over the government. The government must have enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that person A was in fact the person responsible for the crime. Otherwise the government would not need to try to hard to convict a person for a crime. And for the innocent who have been found guilty, it is just a testament to how we should invest more money in our judicial system to insure that even people who get an attorney assigned to them still get high quality service... it is difficult to persuade good lawyers to work for significantly less pay and more work.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...


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