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What does 'beyond a reasonable doubt' mean anyway?

The jury verdict in Casey Anthony's murder case has created quite a stir. Many people were utterly convinced of her guilt and were shocked when the jury found her not guilty of the homicide charges against her.

Regardless of how you may feel about Casey Anthony as an individual, her case demonstrates that a person cannot be convicted of a crime unless the prosecution proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. With all of the evidence brought in court, many people are now curious about what exactly is meant by "beyond a reasonable doubt." In this post, we will do our best explain what that admittedly vague phrase means.

We hear the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" all the time in court, on TV and in the movies. Yet, a precise definition of what that means has been elusive. In fact, some in the legal community have argued that there should not be a precise definition.

Over the years, there have been several schools of thought on what reasonable doubt means. Some courts have described reasonable doubt as a hesitancy to act, as opposed to a willingness to act. Other courts have described reasonable doubt as being firmly convinced.

The U.S. Supreme Court has described reasonable doubt as a doubt "based on reason which arises from the evidence or lack of evidence."

Thus far, the jurors who have spoken out about their verdict in the Casey Anthony case have made comments that relate the Supreme Court's definition. In short, the jury in the Casey Anthony murder trial found that they had a reasonable doubt based on the lack of evidence they saw in court.

One juror indicated that the jury would have convicted Anthony if they were going by feelings alone. However, the jury needed to look at the evidence that was presented in court. They found the evidence was lacking. A second juror commented that the prosecution could not tell them how the alleged murder was committed, when it happened, where it happened, or why it happened.

Whether a defendant is accused of murder, drug crimes or any other crime, that defendant is presumed to be innocent until enough evidence is brought to prove the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sources: CBS News, "Casey Anthony jurors explain their thinking," 7/7/2011

Wharton's Criminal Evidence, "Definition of reasonable doubt," Retrieved 7/7/2011 via (subscription)

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