Proposing Changes to Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Benefits & Drawbacks - Essay Sample

Published: 2023-09-12
Proposing Changes to Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Benefits & Drawbacks - Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Criminal law Criminal justice
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1449 words
13 min read


This proposal is centered on the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the determination of criminal law cases. It is a principle that has existed for a long time and has thus evolved over the years. A more in-depth analysis of its history shows that it serves a different purpose now than it did back then.

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While drawing reference from previously determined criminal law cases, this paper shall seek to justify the reliance on the principle mentioned above despite its apparent flaws. An extreme case scenario that dominantly featured this principle was the landmark case of OJ Simpson. This shall lay the foundation of my paper.


The criminal justice system's success or failure comes down to the principle of beyond reasonable doubt. Several authors and scholars have sought to criticize this principle, some claiming the standards demanded by it are too high. In contrast, the majority have wasted no chance to attack it based on its definition.

Are the standards set for proof beyond reasonable doubt too high? Is there a need to reevaluate it entirely? While there have been numerous attempts to give a particular definition as to the meaning of the principle, why hasn't there been any consensus so far? Why do both jurors and scholars fail to agree on a specific definition? Does the principle raise more questions than providing solutions? (William, 1976) Given the shortcomings surrounding the application of the principle, is there an alternative solution to determining criminal cases?

While referring intensively at the works of such scholars, this paper attempts to answer the above questions. Also, it seeks to establish just what it is about the principle of beyond reasonable doubt, that it has been able to stand the test of time.

Background Information

The principle of beyond reasonable doubt is the standard in a criminal case that must be met and satisfied by the prosecution to convict the defendant (Mulrine, 1997). A study into the history of the principle reveals that it has existed for a long time now, and has indeed stood the test of time. The purposes for which it was introduced are different from those that it serves today.

At its onset, it was concerned with protecting the souls of jurors against condemnation. The jurors often feared vengeance from the relatives of the convicted persons. Besides, "judging" was considered a dangerously spiritual business. Any misstep committed by a judge in the course of it all "built him a mansion in hell" (Whitman, 2008). It was therefore designed to make conviction easier by assuring jurors that their souls were safe if they voted to condemn the accused. Fast forward to the purpose it serves presently. Today, it is used solely to protect the accused on the presumption of innocence.

Literature Review

Since I hold an objective view in writing my paper, my work shall be informed by the works of others, without any bias whatsoever. I shall look at the Barbara Shapiro's thoughts in her book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Probable Cause, where she alludes that throughout the development of the concept of reasonable doubt, writers have recognized the importance of the jury's understanding of two central concepts. First, the jury ought to understand that there are two separate categories of human knowledge. There is the mathematical category in which it is possible to achieve certainty to the highest level. For example, it is sure that two plus two equals 4. Additionally, there is the empirical category in which absolute certainty is not attainable. The second concept the jury must understand is that, while it is not possible to achieve absolute certainty in the empirical category, it is possible to achieve increased certainty through the introduction of better evidence. This consequently resulted in the courts adopting the linkage between 'moral certainty' and 'beyond reasonable doubt' (Shapiro, 1993)

Besides that, I shall also be referring to Federico Picinali's article, Can the reasonable doubt standard be justified-A reconstructed dialogue. This article pits two scholars, with separate approaches to the reasonable doubt principle, against each other. While one argues that the reasonable doubt standard is the highest standard of proof that we can feasibly satisfy in the circumstances of a criminal trial, the other opines that that particular claim would be tough to defend since it is difficult to define the principle itself. A further argument that is raised is the question that; if the principle of beyond reasonable doubt is so concerned with protecting the defendant from false convictions, why not focus on other procedural devices that would seek to do the same? Procedures such as increasing the number of jurors, imposing unanimity in jury decisions, requiring judicial review of every guilty verdict, also excluding confessions and eyewitness testimony because they are often unreliable. (Picinali, 2018)

A further comparison of the relative wrongness of convicting the innocent and acquitting the guilty is also raised. Why should we give priority to the interests of the defendant from false convictions at the expense of the interests of innocent people from false victimization? Why is a false conviction substantially worse than a false acquittal?

Finally, the scholars contend that convicting based on proof beyond reasonable doubt imposes a risk of false conviction on the defendant, and the only way to avoid this imposition is to require certainty of guilt. However, requiring certainty would make the administration of criminal justice impossible. Thus, if we want a system that is capable of convicting the guilty, we must accept a quantum of risk of false conviction (Whitman, 2008).

Theoretical Framework

Various theories shall form the basis of my paper. Firstly, retributive justice is a theory of justice that considers proportionate punishment a morally acceptable response to crime. The positive law theory, which mainly serves as a critic of the natural law theory, shall also be relied on extensively.

Throughout the paper, questions surrounding morality shall arise. For instance, a moral philosopher might raise the disturbing question as to why exactly you'd send someone to prison, or even subject them to a death sentence, on the strength of a rule that nobody understands. (Whitman, 2008).

Research Design, Methods, and Analysis

My method of research shall be more qualitative rather than quantitative. As such, I intend to rely on books from the library, case laws, and scholarly articles from the internet heavily. As this paper shall be focused on critics of other works regarding the principle of beyond reasonable doubt, it is only practical to focus on scholarly articles from different authors.

Limitations of Your Proposal

No one is yet to put forward a case, for or against retaining the reasonable doubt standard, which is capable of producing consensus across the board. As such, it is difficult to maintain an objective view while attempting to answer the research question.


This research will help bring enlightenment as to the necessity of the principle of beyond reasonable doubt in the determination of criminal cases. Further, it seeks to shed some light on just how exactly the criminal justice system would be like in the absence of the principle of beyond reasonable doubt. Finally, it seeks to determine why jurors have all through the years insisted on abiding by it despite its apparent flaws. The essence of all these would be to regain trust in the criminal justice system.

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

This paper shall proceed on the presumption that proof beyond a reasonable doubt falls much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities. That it is not enough to believe the accused is probably guilty or likely guilty. Proof of probable guilt, or likely guilt, is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

That it is solely the duty of the prosecution to prove the accused person's guilt. However, grievous the charge is, the principle that the prosecution must prove the accused person's guilt is part of the common law, and no attempt to water it down can succeed, let alone be entertained.


Mulrine, Thomas V. "Reasonable Doubt: How in the World Is It Defined?" American University International Law Review 12, no. 1 (1997): 195-225.

Picinali, F. (January 01, 2018). Can the Reasonable Doubt Standard be Justified? A Reconstructed Dialogue. The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 31, 2, 365-402.

Shapiro, A. H. (January 01, 1993). Barbara Shapiro. Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Probable Cause. Historical Perspectives on the Anglo-American Law of Evidence. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1991. Pp. xv. 365. $42.50. Albion, 25, 1, 101-103.

Whitman, J. Q. (2008). The origins of reasonable doubt: Theological roots of the criminal trial. New Haven: Yale University Press.

William R. Meagher, A Critique of Lawyers' Ethics in an Adversary System, 4 Fordham Urb. L.J. 289, (1976). Available at:

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