The Important Balance of the Burdens of Proof in a Just System
The shock that many in the community are expressing to the not-guilty verdict handed down by the jury in the recent high-profile criminal trial in Orlando illustrates a point that I try to make to all of my clients – predicting the outcome of any trial with any certainty is impossible. Litigants – and in some cases, the members of the public – at times become so convinced of the “just” outcome of a case that they lose sight of the balance of the judicial system and the burdens of proof carried by the parties.
Our judicial system, rightly, requires the proponent of the claim to prove that claim. In the civil context, the plaintiff typically carries the burden to prove the elements of his claim. The burdens of proof in a civil case are lesser than that of a criminal case. In a civil case, usually a plaintiff must prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence – in other words, that something is more likely than not to have occurred. Less commonly, some civil claims require proof by clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard of persuasion than preponderance of the evidence, but not quite as high as the criminal burden of proof.
In a criminal case, the government – either the State of Florida for a state-charged crime or the United States for a federally-charged crime – must prove the elements of the crime to establish the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest standard.
The requirement that the proponent of the claim or charge carries the burden of proof is the correct balance in our judicial system, and the alternative would be unjust. In the criminal context, the alternative would be that the government could charge a person with a crime without sufficient cause, have guilt presumed, and force the defendant to prove his or her innocence. In the civil context, the alternative would be that a plaintiff could sue for money or other civil relief and tie up a defendant’s property, money or credit without having first proved entitlement to any damages at all. The individual’s rights that could be infringed upon in such an abusive system are limitless. Unfortunately, this happens in other societies and is condemned by those with a balanced judicial system like ours.
Because of the balance imposed by the respective burdens of proof, it is impossible to predict with absolute certainty what a jury or judge will decide in any case. What may seem to be a very persuasive fact or argument to a litigant may not been deemed to be persuasive by the trier of fact. Evidence or testimony by a witness, which may seem to be very credible to the proponent of that evidence, may be looked at with circumspection by the judge or jury. An argument urged by one Orlando attorney that would seem infallible may be shown to be specious by the other attorney’s more persuasive argument.
The verdict in the recent high-profile case here in Orlando, wherein many members of the public (stoked by the media fanfare) were convinced in the “just” outcome, which outcome was rejected by a jury, demonstrates that it is impossible to predict the outcome of any matter.
A lesson we all should learn is that whenever a case is taken to trial, there is a risk that the judge or the jury will just not see the case through your eyes, no matter how convinced you are as to the ‘justness’ of your position. If you are a litigant, listen to your Orlando lawyer and respect his or her advice. If you are a member of the public, be cautious in substituting your judgment for the decisions reached by the trier of fact. But in all cases, respect the balance of the judicial system.
– Nancy E. Brandt, Esq., is a shareholder with Bogin, Munns, & Munns, P.A., a full service law firm with offices in Orlando, Clermont, Kissimmee, Deltona, Daytona Beach, Ocala, Melbourne, Gainesville, and Leesburg, Florida. She welcomes questions and comments regarding the above and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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