A primary principle of the American criminal justice system is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Most crimes have two or more elements, and the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed each of the elements of the crime charged. For example, the elements of the crime of battery are:
- the intentional application of physical force
- to another human being
- that results in either bodily injury or an offensive touching.
To prove a defendant is guilty of battery, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt each of the elements. The defendant must have intentionally applied physical force. He or she must have applied the force to another person. The application of force must have caused injury or offensive touching.
Although the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” has no clearly defined meaning, it means that the evidence convinces the juror to a degree of moral certainty that the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged. If the prosecution fails, the defendant should be found not guilty of the crime charged.
Although the prosecution almost always has the burden of proving each element of the crime charged (typically by presenting evidence and witnesses at a trial), the defendant will usually have the burden of proving any defenses such as insanity or self-defense.