What is the Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases?

burden of proof in criminal cases

When we talk about the “burden of proof” in a legal case, we’re referring to the obligation of a party to prove or disprove a disputed fact. This term gets used often, but what does it actually entail in a criminal proceeding?

The burden of proof establishes the level of evidence and standard of proof required for a party to prevail on an issue. There are different burdens of proof in criminal versus civil cases. Criminal defense cases have the highest proof requirements since a defendant’s freedom and record are at stake.

Criminal Cases vs. Civil Trials: Different Burdens of Proof

In criminal cases, the prosecution bears the heavy burden of establishing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” before a defendant can be convicted. This duty sets an appropriately high bar to protect the accused from false convictions. After all, criminal penalties may involve jail time, fines, probation, or loss of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, civil cases typically use the far less strict “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Here, the plaintiff aims to show their claims are more likely true than not. The stakes are usually monetary damages rather than one’s rights or freedoms.

Meeting The Reasonable Doubt Threshold

So, what constitutes “reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial? It’s not just any minor uncertainty or farfetched question that lets an accused criminal walk free. However, it does mean that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This assumption means prosecutors must eliminate any fair or rational doubts about the defendant’s guilt.

More specifically, Ohio’s Revised Code (ORC 2901.05) defines proof beyond a reasonable doubt as “proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of their own affairs.” So, while this isn’t an impossible standard, reasonable doubt sets a high bar before the state can revoke someone’s liberty.

Prosecution Must Prove Every Element

To secure a conviction, Ohio prosecutors must prove every element of an alleged crime beyond that reasonable doubt threshold. Assume the state charges Jack with murder.

To meet its burden of proof, the prosecution would need to demonstrate:

  • Jack caused the victim’s death (actus reus).
  • He intended to kill the victim or cause serious harm (mens rea).
  • The death resulted from Jack’s criminal act.

If doubts remain about any of those essential points, a murder conviction cannot stand no matter how stacking the other evidence may seem. Unlike civil cases where plaintiffs only need to tip the scales 51-49% in their favor, reasonable doubts of guilt preclude criminal conviction.

Using Various Evidence To Meet The Burden

So, how does the prosecution attempt to eliminate those reasonable doubts? By compiling various convincing evidence like:

  • Police interviews establishing opportunity and motive.
  • Security footage placing the defendant at the scene.
  • Eyewitness testimony identifying the perpetrator.
  • Video evidence, incriminating social media posts.
  • Murder weapon with defendant’s fingerprints.
  • Cell phone records tracking the defendant’s movements.
  • DNA matches connecting the defendant to the victim.

While no single piece may be definitive, the evidence must collectively prove guilt beyond fair or rational doubts. Otherwise, the prosecution fails to meet its demanding burden.

What Is An Affirmative Defense?

We’ve focused on the prosecution’s responsibility to eliminate doubts about a defendant’s criminal acts; however, the defense also shares certain burdens of proof.

Namely, Ohio defendants must back up any affirmative defenses they raise – like self-defense, insanity pleas, or duress claims. Unlike outright denying the prosecution’s charges, affirmative defenses essentially admit, “Yes, I did the criminal act, but here is my legal justification.”

Defendants must provide supporting evidence because affirmative defenses acknowledge committing the acts in question. However, unlike prosecutors, they generally only need to demonstrate claims by a “preponderance of evidence” – more likely true than not.

Burden of Proof In Ohio Self-Defense Cases

As one example, ORC 2901.05 allows using force when facing grave danger, but certain limits apply. A defendant must meet three key burdens to prevail on a self-defense claim:

Initial Burden – Defendant Must Produce Some Supporting Evidence

First, the defendant carries the immediate burden of coming forward with some supporting evidence that force was necessary and lawful. This duty creates a fact question for the jury to resolve.

However, defendants don’t need to demonstrate self-defense conclusively at this stage – just produce enough initial proof to warrant consideration.

Intermediate Burden – State Must Disprove Self-Defense Claims

The tables return to the prosecution when a defendant meets that initial burden. Here the state must rebut self-defense arguments and affirmatively prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, the prosecution must show force was not necessary or justified.

Note the elevated standard again – with affirmative defenses in play – prosecutors must not only prove criminal acts but also demonstrate the defense doesn’t apply.

Final Burden – Jury Determines If Self-Defense Exists

Finally, either side may appeal to the ultimate trier of fact – the jury. Attentive jurors will compare arguments from both the prosecution and defense. Ultimately, the jury decides if prosecutors met their burden of disproving self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

With competent legal guidance, defendants can craft cohesive arguments that introduce reasonable doubt on top of the prosecution’s burden. Criminal defense attorneys are intimately familiar with affirmatively establishing defensive claims under Ohio law.

Common Affirmative Defenses Beyond Self-Defense

While most defendants commonly invoke self-defense, Ohio recognizes other affirmative defenses like:

Insanity Pleas

Defendants may claim legal insanity prevented them from understanding criminal actions or differentiating right from wrong. The defense must demonstrate insanity by a preponderance of evidence.


Defendants argue an immediate threat against their (or a loved one’s) life or safety coerced criminal participation. Here, they must introduce some level of supporting evidence.


Government agents induced someone not otherwise predisposed to commit the crime. The defense tries to prove that entrapment is more likely than not to have occurred.

When competently asserted, these defenses can neutralize criminal liability even when the illegal acts are uncontested. An experienced criminal defense attorney helps prepare persuasive, affirmative claims.

Gathering The Necessary Evidence

Whether proving guilt or self-defense, marshaling supportive evidence is critical to meeting the burdens of proof. Both sides undertake parallel efforts through formal discovery and independent investigations to gather evidence.

The prosecution wields extensive resources via police departments and investigators to establish the defendant’s guilt.

The state may:

  • Secure video footage placing the defendant at the scene.
  • Obtain DNA evidence linking to the accused.
  • Interview eyewitnesses identifying the defendant.
  • Access cell data revealing incriminating movements or calls.
  • Retrieve text messages or social media pointing to guilt.
  • Build a convincing evidentiary narrative affirming guilt.

Meanwhile, the defense focuses on compiling reasonable doubts around accusations plus evidence backing affirmative claims:

  • Interview eyewitnesses contradicting accusations.
  • Gather character statements rebutting alleged motives.
  • Acquire video evidence showing lawful defensive actions.
  • Reconstruct cell or GPS records confirming innocence.
  • Have experts evaluate mental competency for insanity pleas.
  • Challenge DNA or fingerprints as inconclusive or contaminated.

An Ohio criminal defense lawyer actively assists in developing a complete, compelling counter-narrative to the prosecution’s theory. Every bit of reasonable doubt or affirmative proof helps secure acquittals or mitigated outcomes for the accused.

Why a Criminal Defense Attorney is Vital For Meeting Burdens

Given the high stakes and complex burdens involved, relying on legal counsel is vital when facing Ohio prosecutors. Savvy criminal defense lawyers intimately understand subtle factors impacting burdens like:

  • Navigating Ohio’s web of criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines.
  • Crafting strategic defense themes that resonate with local jurors.
  • Identifying weaknesses in the prosecution’s physical evidence and witness testimony.
  • Mastering evidentiary procedures around discovery.
  • Presenting affirmative proofs for key defenses like self-defense, insanity, and entrapment.
  • Negotiating favorable plea deals or sentences when appropriate.

On top of guiding clients through the confusing criminal justice process, skilled criminal defense lawyers also provide invaluable emotional support and advice during difficult times. Don’t go it alone against seasoned police and prosecutors in Ohio courts.

Get Strategic Defense Support With Experienced Ohio Counsel

Various burdens exist on the prosecution and defense when disputing criminal cases under Ohio law. Fortunately, our attorneys help clients marshal reliable evidence and craft high-impact legal strategies.

Whether you face misdemeanor or serious felony charges, the prosecution must eliminate all reasonable doubts about your guilt. Meanwhile, The Botnick Law Firm helps defendants pursue justified affirmative defenses when appropriate.

From start to finish, you can rely on criminal defense attorneys to highlight weaknesses in the state’s arguments while asserting consequential affirmative claims on your behalf.

Author Bio

Botnick Law Firm

Robert Botnick is CEO and Managing Partner of Botnick Law Firm, a criminal defense law firm in Cleveland, OH. With more than 19 years of experience in criminal defense, he has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including DUIs, misdemeanors, felonies, domestic violence, and other criminal charges.

Robert received his Juris Doctor from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University and is a member of the Ohio State Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including the Best DUI Lawyers in Cleveland award by

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