Innocent or Not Guilty: What Is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
The vast majority of public information about crime, police and the criminal justice system comes from the media and from movies and TV. The rise in popularity of crime dramas and documentary programs illustrates the day-to-day realities of what it’s like to be a police officer, a prosecutor or criminal defence attorney, or even a person accused of a crime. These crime dramas and documentaries may romanticize, and even provide an unrealistic representation, of what the trial process is actually like in the criminal justice system; however, they inevitably feature that stand-alone scene of being found guilty or not guilty after an exciting and stirring trial. So why is it that someone who is accused of a crime is found “guilty” or “not guilty” at the culmination of a trial? Why doesn’t the judge (or jury) declare someone who is found not guilty to be “innocent?”
One of the most fundamental purposes of the trial process is to pursue the search for the truth. The integrity of our administration of justice relies on this. What does it actually mean to “search for the truth,” and what is the truth? The search for the truth is concerned with legal guilt, and not factual guilt. Put simply, our criminal justice system is only concerned with the state proving its case against an accused person to the requisite degree. This standard of proof in criminal trials is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental pillar in all criminal trials, and this is why the Crown, or prosecutor, bears this burden throughout the entire trial. The constitutionally enshrined right to be presumed innocent is subsumed within this standard of proof. Without the vital notion that the Crown is always held to the standard of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused could never truly be presumed innocent. Without the Crown discharging its burden to this standard, a fair criminal trial would never be possible, resulting in a serious miscarriage of justice.
In 1997, the case of R. v. Lifchus clarified what “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” actually means in Canada. A reasonable doubt is “a doubt based on reason and common sense which must logically be derived from the evidence (or absence of evidence).” In other words, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is something more than probable guilt, but can be something less than absolute guilt, because absolute certainty is impossible. Similarly, reasonable doubt is not meant to be an “imaginary” concept, and cannot be based upon feelings of prejudice or sympathy for the accused. The reasoning of “probably guilty” falls far below this standard of proof, and if a jury does arrive to this conclusion, an acquittal must follow. It follows that proof beyond a reasonable doubt cannot be quantified, as a percentage for example. It is more of an art than a science. This stands in stark contrast to the standard of proof ordinarily required in civil trials, proof on a “balance of probabilities”, which only requires the successful litigant to have stronger proof, or evidence to prove that something more likely than not has occurred. Mathematically speaking, proof on a balance of probabilities can be quantified to a 50.1% likelihood of something having occurred.
The expression of “reasonable doubt” cannot be understood in its everyday meaning. The concept of reasonable doubt has a specific meaning in the legal context that is distinct from its use and meaning outside of the courtroom. The words “doubt” and “reasonable” as a result cannot be qualified, or understood by paging through a thesaurus.
While the expression “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is one that most people have heard of, and most people think they understand, it is in practice a concept that can be difficult to grasp for the vast majority of people who do not work within the justice system. It is for this reason that judges are required to provide instructions to juries that explain the concept of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and its application to the case.
That’s why being found not guilty isn’t the same thing as being found “innocent”. Being found not guilty simply means that the Crown has failed to discharge its burden to the standard required: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.