The prosecution in criminal proceedings bears the burden of proving every element of the charge against the defendant. For example, if a defendant is charged in New Jersey with killing a service animal or guide dog, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the following facts:
1. The animal that was killed was a service animal or guide dog.
2. The defendant either killed the animal or permitted a dog that he or she owned or controlled to kill the animal.
3. The defendant acted recklessly (meaning that he or she consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the outcome, in that instance the death of the service animal or guide dog, would result from his or her conduct).
Those facts are the elements of the offense of killing a service animal or guide dog in New Jersey.
In criminal proceedings the prosecution must prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt is often defined as honest and reasonable uncertainty in the minds of the jurors (or the judge, if there is no jury) about the defendant’s guilt after full and impartial consideration of all of the evidence. A generally accepted definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is that the evidence firmly convinces the jurors (or the judge, if there is no jury) of all elements of the charge.
When a defendant is acquitted, that means only that the prosecution failed to prove every element of the charge against the defendant; being acquitted toes not establish a defendant’s innocence. Two well-known criminal prosecutions in American history illustrate this distinction.
In 1994 OJ Simpson, a well-known football player, commentator, and actor, was arrested and charged with killing his ex-wife and one of her friends. Simpson faced two counts of first degree murder, which means that he planned to kill the victims and then did so. After a lengthy and well-publicized trial the jury acquitted Simpson of both charges. Simpson’s acquittal did not, however, resolve his responsibility for the death’s of his ex-wife and her friend.
Simpson was sued by the estates of his ex-wife and her friend. The jury in the civil cases found that Simpson killed them, resulting in a multi-million dollar jury verdict against Simpson. The jury verdicts in the criminal and civil proceedings were not inconsistent, because the estates in the civil proceedings did not have to prove Simpson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead the estates in the wrongful death cases only had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Simpson killed his ex-wife and her friend. Proving a fact by a “preponderance of the evidence” means proving that the fact is more likely than not true, which is far easier than proving facts beyond a reasonable doubt and establishing a firm conviction of the defendant’s guilt.
In 1892 Lizzie Borden, a woman living in Fall River, Massachusetts, was accused of murdering her father and stepmother by repeatedly hacking them with an axe. The jury acquitted Borden of both charges, but the prosecution’s failure to prove Borden’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt did not end speculation about her guilt. During the century after the murders journalists, scholars, and other writers continued to publicize their theories about Borden’s guilt. Additionally, Borden was shunned by other residents of Fall River for the rest of her life due to the belief that she had committed the murders.
A defendant who is acquitted of criminal charges will avoid prison and other penal consequences of a criminal conviction. That does not mean that he or she is innocent, and a criminal defendant can still face civil consequences, as OJ Simpson did, and live the rest of his or her life under a cloud based on the perception that he or she was guilty, as both Simpson and Lizzie Borden did.