What Is the Standard of Proof in Criminal Cases? Staff Profile Picture
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According to the Pew Research Center, only 2% of all criminal cases go to trial. There is a high probability that criminal cases that go to trial will result in a conviction. However, if the prosecution fails to meet the required standards of proof, the defendant cannot be convicted of any criminal charges.

Meeting standards of proof is crucial in ensuring all defendants receive a fair trial. Criminal cases involve the highest penalties of the law and the greatest risk to defendants’ civil liberties. For this reason, our legal system has evolved to require a certain standard of proof in criminal cases to prevent wrongful convictions and ensure justice is served to all parties. 

What is the Standard of Proof in Criminal Trials?

“Standard of proof” in criminal trials refers to the legal responsibility of the judge and jury to establish whether the prosecution definitively proved the defendant’s guilt. Various hierarchies of proof describe the degree to which a defendant’s guilt must be definitively proven by evidence. While certain levels of proof are also required in civil trials, the onus of proof is much higher in criminal cases as the defendant’s civil rights are at stake, depending on the verdict. 

The required standards of proof aren’t always perfectly met in criminal trials, and some cases are appealed due to a lack of evidence. However, upholding the ideals of these standards helps to keep our criminal trials fair and reduce the number of wrongful convictions nationwide. Your attorney can help you to understand your state’s specific laws regarding the standard of proof in criminal trials. 

Clear and Convincing Evidence

The first standard of proof considered in criminal trials is the presence of clear and convincing evidence. The evidence provided must establish guilt and convince the jury to convict the defendant. In other words, the evidence provided by the prosecution must convince the court that the charges filed against the defendant are plausibly true and that the provided evidence has left them with a firm belief of the defendant’s guilt. In most cases, clear and convincing evidence is the minimum requirement of proof in a criminal trial.

Preponderance of Evidence

A “preponderance of evidence” means that the defendant’s guilt is more likely than not. To meet the standard of preponderance of evidence, the evidence submitted must lean towards establishing the defendant’s fault/liability or guilt. This standard is primarily applied to civil cases. The other standards listed here are more likely to apply to criminal cases. 

Substantial Evidence

The standard of “substantial evidence” is among the lower standards of proof required in criminal cases. There may not be definitive proof with the standard of substantial evidence. However, the provided evidence must trend toward proving the prosecution’s case. The standard of substantial evidence requires that the evidence provided mostly proves the defendant’s guilt instead of proving the defendant’s innocence. The prosecution must submit enough evidence that any reasonably minded person would accept as proof of the defendant’s guilt to meet this standard of proof.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The principle that the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest standard of proof and is mandated by the Constitution. This standard means that if there are grounds to doubt a defendant’s guilt, they cannot be convicted of the crimes in question. Whatever state your criminal case is filed in, the jury’s decision will hinge on determining whether the criminal defendant’s guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial. In some cases, if your attorney can establish that the prosecution failed to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, there may be grounds to appeal the jury’s decision. 

Resources for Criminal Defendants

While many resources are dedicated specifically to crime victims, plenty of legal resources are available for criminal defendants. These resources help ensure that criminal defendants know their options and rights before facing trial. Most of these resources are free to use and can offer guidance to criminal defendants before, during, and after their trial.

Everyone charged with a crime should know their legal rights and potential resources. If you are searching for legal help, offers legal aid and other legal resources for low-income individuals seeking legal advice. Using their comprehensive site, criminal defendants can learn more about the difference between criminal court and civil court, federal and state criminal laws, and legal aid and low-cost legal help. To find legal help near you, visit

ABA’s Military & Veterans Legal Center

Many legal resources exist to provide legal assistance to specific groups (such as older people or people with disabilities). Active service military and veterans are among those groups with dedicated legal resources. The American Bar Association (ABA) is an excellent resource for all criminal defendants seeking legal guidance; however, the ABA’s Military & Veterans Legal Center is a wonderful example of a free-to-use legal service for military families. The ABA’s ​​Directory of Legal Programs for Military Families provides a list of legal resources organized by state.

The Innocence Project

Criminal defendants may still be in need of crucial resources post-trial. If you have been wrongly convicted of a crime and you believe the prosecution failed to meet the above standards of proof, the Innocence Project may be able to help. The Innocence Project was founded to overturn wrongful convictions and revolutionize the legal system. Because of the volume of requests, the Innocence Project asks that you ensure your case meets its requirements before contacting the organization. To qualify, you must have been convicted of a crime, and there must be DNA evidence that can prove your innocence. If you believe your case meets these criteria, you can submit your case for review via mail. 

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