Free Consultation! Call: (609) 261-3400 | Email: | Emergencies: Click Here

Defining Beyond a Reasonable Doubt


In a criminal prosecution, the State bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt every element of an offense. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970).  The due process clauses of the Federal Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution compel this standard.

Under the Sixth Amendment, the jury, not the court, determines guilt in a serious criminal case.  Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 149 (1968).  Due process mandates that “the jury verdict required by the Sixth Amendment is a jury verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 278 (1993).  The reasonable-doubt standard provides “concrete substance for the presumption of innocence,” and reduces the risk of wrongful conviction.  In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 363 (1970).  It assures that a defendant will not be convicted if reasonable doubt exists about his or her guilt.

Notwithstanding its venerated role, the standard is problematic.  “Although this standard is an ancient and honored aspect of our criminal justice system, it defies easy explication.”  Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994).  Neither the New Jersey Constitution nor the Federal Constitution explicitly demands that trial courts define reasonable doubt. Both constitutions require only that the trial court inform the jury of the State’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Neither constitution defines reasonable doubt.  Trial courts have therefore struggled in explaining the State’s burden.  The New Jersey Supreme Court has cautioned “trial courts against using any charge that has a tendency to ‘understate[]’ or ‘trivialize the awesome duty of the jury to determine whether the defendant’s guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ”  State v. Biegenwald, 106 N.J. 13, 41 (1987).  Some federal circuit courts of appeal have instructed district courts not to try to define the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard because the definitions are frequently either unhelpful or inaccurate. See, e.g., United States v. Adkins, 937 F.2d 947, 950 (4th Cir.1991) (“This circuit has repeatedly warned against giving the jury definitions of reasonable doubt, because definitions tend to impermissibly lessen the burden of proof. . . . The only exception to our categorical disdain for definition is when the jury specifically requests it.”); United States v. Hall, 854 F.2d 1036, 1039 (7th Cir.1988) (upholding district court’s refusal to provide definition, despite jury’s request, because, “at best, definitions of reasonable doubt are unhelpful to a jury. . . . An attempt to define reasonable doubt presents a risk without any real benefit.”).

The United States Supreme Court has held that a jury instruction that partially defined reasonable doubt, as “such a doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty,” and as “an actual substantial doubt,” violated the Due Process Clause.  Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39, 40 (1990).  The Court explained that “the words ‘substantial’ and ‘grave,’ as they are commonly understood, suggest a higher degree of doubt than is required for acquittal under the reasonable doubt standard.”  Id. at 41.

In an effort to adequately instruct jurors in criminal trials, New Jersey State courts have “Model Criminal” jury charges.  They are created by The Model Criminal Jury Charge Committee.  The Model Criminal Jury Charge Committee is a standing committee of the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Model Criminal Jury Charge Committee prepares and updates model civil jury charges to be useful to trial judges and parties to accomplish the important function of adequately and understandably instructing criminal juries.  The Model Criminal Jury Charges endeavor to enhance comprehension by jurors, while retaining a balanced and accurate statement of the law.

The following is the model charge for “reasonable doubt”.

The prosecution must prove its case by more than a mere preponderance of the evidence, yet not necessarily to an absolute certainty.

The State has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Some of you may have served as jurors in civil cases, where you were told that it is necessary to prove only that a fact is more likely true than not true.  In criminal cases, the State’s proof must be more powerful than that.  It must be beyond a reasonable doubt.

A reasonable doubt is an honest and reasonable uncertainty in your minds about the guilt of the defendant after you have given full and impartial consideration to all of the evidence.  A reasonable doubt may arise from the evidence itself or from a lack of evidence.  It is a doubt that a reasonable person hearing the same evidence would have.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof, for example, that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt.  In this world, we know very few things with absolute certainty.  In criminal cases the law does not require proof that overcomes every possible doubt.  If, based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him/her guilty.  If, on the other hand, you are not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt, you must give defendant the benefit of the doubt and find him/her not guilty.

Mark W. Catanzaro and Daniel M. Rosenberg are criminal defense attorneys who practice criminal defense in Burlington County, Mercer County and Camden County, New Jersey.  For legal assistance or representation, Mr. Catanzaro and Mr. Rosenberg can be contacted at (609) 261-3400.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Request Free Case Evaluation

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Office Locations

Mount Holly:

21 Grant St.
Mt. Holly, New Jersey


143 White Horse Avenue
Trenton, New Jersey