The Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

In general, a prosecutor will have the burden of proof in a criminal case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. The key word here is “reasonable” — the prosecution does not need to prove to an absolute certainty that a defendant is guilty.

But despite this general rule, there are some circumstances when the burden of proof may shift to the defendant. An example of this would be if a defendant was found to be in possession of stolen property. If the prosecution proves that the stolen item was in the defendant’s possession, the burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to provide a reasonable explanation why this was so — i.e., it was given as a gift or purchased without the knowledge that it was stolen.

Intent is important in proving guilt in criminal cases. If a defendant is being prosecuted for fraud, the prosecutor must prove that the accused had a specific intent to commit the fraud. However, there are some crimes that are categorized as general intent crimes, where the prosecution only needs to prove that the accused committed the crime and not that he or she intended any specific outcome from the act.

General intent is defined as the intent to engage in conduct. This means that it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that a defendant intended precise harm or the eventual result. One example of a general intent crime is when the law defines battery as “intentional and harmful physical contact with another person.” If Tom punches Jerry in the face for calling him a name, Tom has likely committed battery. The prosecutor does not need to prove that Tom intended to hurt Jerry because the law already assumes as much.

The Cogdell Law Firm is a full service criminal litigation and appellate law firm. We provide client-focused representation at all stages of the process, whether our clients are seeking to avoid charges, have been charged, or are seeking reversal of a conviction on appeal. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or