Is it because we don't get the actual meaning of "proven" so we implement the concept in a faulty way ?

Is it because "reasonable" varies too much from person to person ?

Is it because the individuals running the legal systems don't actually care to comply with that rule or to take action when they think that rule has been violated ?

Other ?

Note that I'm referring only to the legal systems of countries that consider themselves as being at the top level of civilization (in particular I'm not including dictatorships or corruption-driven countries). Let's say North America, Western Europe, Australia / New Zealand.

ADDED: I forgot to specify that by wrongful convictions I don't mean those where the defendant is objectively known to have done something and the judgement is about whether that thing is legal or not. Instead, I'm only talking about those convictions where a crime was certainly committed, but not by the defendant - who might not even have been there when the crime was committed - and about those convictions where the fact just never happened and was made up by the accuser.

  • It is human nature to believe in stories. Judges and juries tend to believe in stories as opposed to only the raw facts.
    – user3164
    May 2, 2014 at 21:11
  • @Watson: That would definitely indicate that in reality judges and juries are simply not required to stick to the "proven beyond any reasonable doubt" rule. And sadly it looks like they aren't indeed. Actually the fact itself that in some countries there are juries at all looks like a confirmation of the above to me: if a conviction must really be based on the level of evidence, shouldn't the decision exclusively reflect evaluations made by experts of the specific sector where that particular evidence belongs ? May 3, 2014 at 9:43
  • For ex. in a case about electronic fraud what's the point of providing a detailed explanation of how it's technically impossible to do a certain thing to a jury of hairdressers and philosophy teachers ? The fact that there are juries composed of randomly chosen local people seems to suggest that the real purpose of such a trial is to decide whether the behavior being judged is acceptable by the prevalent moral standards of the local community, rather than to decide whether the law has been broken. May 3, 2014 at 9:44
  • 1
    In the USA, it's not "beyond any reasonable doubt" but "beyond reasonable doubt", which is definitely not the same.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 26, 2015 at 21:09
  • That's what you have expert witnesses for. They would determine whether it is technically possible to do something or not. And a jury made by local people is there to determine what the facts of the case are; the judge then uses their fact determination and the law, and the prevalent moral standards of anyone don't play any part in it.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 26, 2015 at 21:12

7 Answers 7


All of the things you mention are big factors, and to that I would add:

  • Individuals working in the legal systems (especially prosecutors and police) can have personal incentives to "get" convictions because it helps their career.
  • (perhaps the biggest factor) people suck at being impartial. They trust their intuitions and emotions more than cold reasoning. The typical view is "I know that person is guilty, now I just have to prove it". Someone being acquitted due to lack of evidence is often seen as a failure of the legal system.
  • Excellent points, I think unfortunately they are both real. I don't have enough reputation to upvote.Some people (not me) would deny them though, by claiming that: - Prosecutors and police wouldn't do so because if they cause a wrongful conviction their career would be damaged. Would it ? I always had the unpleasant feeling that it would not, or just marginally. - People acting not impartially would be rendered harmless by the need for evidence. Sounds like an infinite loop fuelled by wishful thinking to me. May 2, 2014 at 9:48
  • I'd say someone being acquitted due to lack of evidence is actually a failure, less of one than convicting someone where there is a lack of evidence, but a failure none-the-less. It's clearly not a failure that is remedied by convicting: this would surely make it worse. Still, trying someone without evidence is at best a waste of everyone's time and at worst an artefact of a system that can be used to harass innocent people.
    – Lucas
    May 2, 2014 at 16:09
  • In my opinion an acquittal due to lack of evidence is never a failure (unless of course the lack of evidence is due to negligence). We know in advance that it's not possible to find evidence in 100% of the cases so 1) We must expect since the beginning that a certain number of guilty people will be acquitted and 2) A 100% conviction rate would necessarily imply a certain number of wrongful convictions, so the absence of acquittals due to lack of evidence would be a failure. May 3, 2014 at 9:54
  • @SantiBailors: yes, but that's absolutely not how the average man on the street sees it (or the average cop). Just look at crime shows on TV. "Acquitted for lack of evidence" is basically code for "got away with murder" in those - and taunting the police that they don't have evidence that you did what they "know" you did is practically mandatory for criminal masterminds. May 5, 2014 at 7:54
  • @Michael Borgwardt: Totally agreed. I have to conclude that while we thought that with civilization we had got rid of the jungle law, actually we just changed its terms and not much its outcomes. I guess the problem is that when a crime is committed the average man tends to identify himself always with the victim and never with the one accused of being the perpetrator. He wants a culprit, in order to relief himself from the fear of becoming one day a victim of similar crimes, by fooling himself into thinking that there won't be many such crimes because those who commit them get caught. May 5, 2014 at 12:00

First, an epistemological note. It is not possible to prove any position at all. That is, there is no way of showing that any position is true or probably true or anything like that. A valid argument has assumptions and some kind of rules that then show that if the premisses are true then the conclusion must be true. But there is no way of showing that an argument is valid and the premisses are correct. How would you do that? Make another argument? But that argument raises the same problem as the original argument of proving the correctness of the premisses and validity of the argument.

Rather, you have to guess what premisses and arguments and arguments are correct and then criticise those guesses by considering issues like whether they are consistent with other ideas about how the world works, whether they match scientific evidence, testimony and that sort of thing. If two ideas fail to match then one of them is wrong. You don't know which of the two ideas is wrong and that requires more thinking about how to test each idea.

Why do people get wrongly convicted? Because there is no way to guarantee that a person will not make a mistake. It is possible that the proven beyond reasonable doubt standard makes the situation worse because people are trying to act on the false idea that they can prove stuff, but I don't know whether that is the case. A more reasonable standard would be that if you can think of any explanation for what happened that has not been successfully criticised by the prosecution, then you should not convict.

  • "Why do people get wrongly convicted? Because there is no way to guarantee that a person will not make a mistake." True, no absolute guarantees about that. That's why I'm not wondering why it happens but why it's so common. Shouldn't it be extraordinarily difficult to prove a false accusation true beyond any reasonable doubt ? May 2, 2014 at 9:54
  • As I explained, it is impossible to do prove anything. So then that standard, which cannot be met, does not contradict the idea that people could easily be falsely convicted. One additional problem is that many people are bad at criticism. Also real life is messy and sometimes a particular interpretation of events in which a person is guilty will look okay when it is false, so judging criminal cases is often difficult.
    – alanf
    May 2, 2014 at 10:07
  • I prefer not to elaborate on "it is impossible to prove anything" because it's too deep a subject for me to handle, however I think that with some small degree of approximation we all agree on what is that they meant in practice when they made the rule of "proven beyond any reasonable doubt", and I still wonder how can that be failed so commonly. If one did not kill someone or steal something how can it be so common that he/she is made to look like he/she did beyond any reasonable doubt ? May 2, 2014 at 10:27
  • It is a lot easier to give a bad impression to the police and others without intending to than you might think. See: youtube.com/watch?v=Zo2GG8jNe_o
    – alanf
    May 2, 2014 at 10:38
  • More or less my point actually. Courts sticking to the "beyond any reasonable doubt" rule when handing down verdicts are exactly what is supposed to save people from being sentenced based on impressions, of the police or others and in good faith or bad faith. May 6, 2014 at 7:05

It's useful to think of this question in terms of what formal epistemologists call credences, or degrees of belief. For any proposition p, traditional epistemology tends to think in terms of either beliving p (written perhaps as B(p) and not believing p.*

But instead we can assign a credence to a proposition Cr(p), which is a number between 0 and 1 expressing how sure we are of some belief. They are something like subjective probabilities.** If Cr(p)=1 that means I'm certain of p, and if Cr(p)=0, it means that I'm certain that p is false.

Now, suppose that p is the claim 'the defendant is guilty'. What credence should a jury have in p in order to return a guilty verdict? 'Beyond all reasonable doubt' suggests that it needs to be very high, but not necessarily certain -- that would be beyond all doubt. A good number seems like 99%, or 0.99.

This is a high level of confidence***. But even then, (and assuming people are rational), we'll still get false convictions 1% of the time. And that adds up very quickly. For every 10,000 trials, there will be 100 wrongful convictions.

So, in answer to the question: even if we require jurys to be almost certain that the defendant is guilty, we would still end up having lots of false convictions. This is arguably why it's very important to have a good appeals process, so that those false convictions can be overturned. (As an aside, this seems also to me to be a very good reason to oppose the death penalty: if we get a verdict wrong there, there's no going back, but at least if we overturn the conviction of somebody in prison, they can be released, and, if appropriate, compensated for time they've wrongly spent inside.)

*Note that there is a difference between not believing p, which we would write as ~B(p), and disbelieving p, which we would write as B(~p). For example, suppose that p is 'there are aliens on the moon', and q is 'there are aliens in the galaxy'. The first of these I disbelieve, I believe that there are in fact no aliens on the moon. But the second I merely do not believe (nor do I disbelieve it).

**Although it is normally assumed that these are probabilities, they need not be. All they are is a measure of our certainty. There are however some good reasons to think that it's rational for our credences to obey the laws of probability.

***For comparison, when scientists do statistical analysis, it's common to require 95% certainty, i.e. to have a credence of 0.95 in their claim (that the null-hypothesis is false).

  • "[W]hen scientists do statistical analysis, it's common to require 95% certainty[.]" I would like to point out that 95% (or 99%) isn't anywhere near what's used in physics. 95% is something that is used in economics and social psychology.
    – user3164
    May 2, 2014 at 21:02
  • 1
    Yes, sorry about not being clearer about that. I believe that 95-99% (I.e. p=0.01 or p=0.05) is common for things like medical trials as well (though happy to be corrected if I'm wrong on that). In any case, it seems like social sciences are the most appropriate comparison, if any science is.
    – J.P.
    May 2, 2014 at 22:31
  • @J.P. As I see it "beyond any reasonable doubt" would imply a credence more like 99.999% than just 99%, keeping in mind that we are not talking about finding out exactly what happened but about finding out whether it was that specific person who did that thing. For example we get a good number of cases where several witnesses testified to have seen the defendant somewhere away from the crime scene and yet he/she got wrongly convicted. This hints to a required credence much lower than 99%, or however largely inadequate to represent "beyond any reasonable doubt". May 3, 2014 at 16:58
  • @J.P. Very good point about the death penalty. That's exactly why although I do not oppose the death penalty in principle I would like to see it abolished in all countries - that and the fact that miscarriages of justice are so incredibly common. May 3, 2014 at 16:59

This question has been studied extensively by Solan and other legal scholars (e.g. 78 Tex. L. Rev. 105). The essential explanation is that jurors tend to misunderstand the intent of the instructions, so they believe that the defense has an obligation to establish a reason to doubt the prosecution's contention. By replacing the standard with a "firmly established; clear and convincing evidence" standard, false convictions are reduced.

  • That is very interesting. But isn't there anyone at any point in the legal process who is supposed to figure out that the jurors didn't follow the intent of the instructions ? I'm not expert but shouldn't the judge make sure that the jury understood the instructions ? In any case this reinforces my previously expressed surprise at the fact that that in some countries there are juries at all: if a conviction must be based on evidence, shouldn't the decision exclusively reflect evaluations by experts of the sector where that particular evidence belongs ? Why ordinary members of the community ? Jun 22, 2015 at 10:21
  • A judge is supposed to be passive, and do what the law tells him to. Legislatures could require judges to ask a specific question of jurors, but they don't.
    – user6726
    Jun 22, 2015 at 15:58
  • Sorry, that is not convincing at all; I think it would be normal for a judge to remind the jurors what is their role, especially since the jurors are ordinary citizens with no legal training and tend to misunderstand the intent of the instructions. That wouldn't feel like the judge is meddling with the jurors' decision. So there is really no one at any point in the legal process who is supposed to prevent the jurors from not following the intent of the instructions ? If the jurors go bananas and blatantly disregard the intent of the instructions who is supposed to do something about that ? Jun 23, 2015 at 13:33
  • The legislature (or proxy) states what the allowed instructions are for a judge to give to a jury. The fault then allows with what is in the instructions. It is a fundamental (and false) premise of the legal system that jurors understand what they are told.
    – user6726
    Jun 23, 2015 at 18:39
  • There are manuals of model jury instructions in most/all states providing guidance to the judge for developing the trial instructions to the jury depending on the specific case needs. There is a portion of the trial where these are thrashed out and then assembled by the judge and then explained to the jury prior to their deliberations.
    – civitas
    2 days ago

To promote the good character of the wrongfully convicted, I interviewed Keir Stahlsmith, who said, "you won't even believe the story I have. It's so bizarre, that it strikes me as the truth being stranger than fiction." His case is one that sheds light on how a criminal thinks, and how the innocent can be, and sometimes are even framed for a crime.

A great example of this, is how a USAF Honorably discharged combat veteran of war, with an excellent academic record, a 4.0 aerospace student who never even had as much as a detention in his life, and ended up taking a plea deal after unscrupulous interrogation techniques, and inability to obtain legal resources from inside prison walls. As he waited for answers, the system left him with not even a toothbrush or toilet paper at one point, accusing him of "trying to kill himself" as Corrections Officer Barret said, for using toilet paper to make an eyemask to help him sleep, in a cell where the light was on 24/7. His fear of "returning to such a dehumanizing environment is worse than death" was what kept him from focusing on more important things, such as obtaining legal counsel. They had taken away his toilet paper, and he said, "this was all due to my previous cellmate who had exposed himself to a child," was written up for slamming the door and shouting repeatedly, while Stahlsmith was also punished as a result of this bad company.

Keir Stahlsmith said, "I had to survive in harsh conditions that are more suitable for those already found guilty." He laughed it off, and maintained his innocence, as the system continued to let him down—from misleading him, to signing away his right to a preliminary hearing, to being denied access to resources to build a proper defense—not even having access to a working phone. He caved in saying, "I just wanted to do anything to avoid that place of unethical mistreatment of human beings. It's beyond words how bad it really is inside those walls. I understand that is where criminals go, but I'm not a criminal and never was and never will be. I just want to be a voice for all those who are ever forced to take a plea, because they think it's better than the pressures of the alternative."

Here is an example of just how corrupt the criminal justice system can be. In order for Keir Stahlsmith, resident of Erie, PA, to avoid a more severe penalty—a law-abiding and intelligent citizen with a spotless record—he was wrongfully convicted, reporting he had "no choice" but to give a false confession. This is a combination of both coercion and intimidation, just to avoid jail time. The techniques used by law enforcement and prosecutors, barely even allowed time for him to build any kind of defense, and he said "I was left sitting there with a 30 second interview before the sentencing hearing and that was it." Keir Stahlsmith asked his public defender, "can I plead no contest?"

And as the judge entered, he replied whispering, "then this deal won't work." And he reported that was the only chance he had to go over anything with the hastily appointed defense. Keir never had an opportunity to even obtain a paid attorney, or have answered phone calls from his defense, nor a chance to go over the discovery of evidence, and he wasn't sure what to do, so he just "took the deal" in fear of suffering more punitive damages. He went from prison, to rehab, to a flop house (a very poorly managed recovery house) all just to avoid more time in prison. "This..." he shook his head, stating, "seemed like the most intelligent thing to do, to just go along with it, and be cooperative. I regret it now. Being cooperative doesn't help an innocent person at all, and it's the innocent who want to cooperate!" Keir stated, "See, this is exactly what I thought I went overseas to fight for and protect, and here I am being stripped of all my rights as a human being, in the most undignified manner, and not even a clue of what else to do."

When I asked about the details surrounding his case, he sounded vexed saying, "it was just too complicated, and I've made mistakes as well. So I figured I would just accept the prosecutor's side as long as it kept me out of that hellhole. I was at a loss, and was so shell-shocked from what I had just been through. I felt nothing better could come of it, and the lie would win out in the end. So why bother fighting against such a beast?"

Keir Stahlsmith, who was accused of burning a vending machine inside his old high school, said, "Never in a million years would I do something that stupid and pointless. Besides, I loved that school! Truth is, I simply didn't have a good alibi that anyone could verify, and my situation got complicated because I was pressured into confessing to something I knew was a set up from the start. Someone had threatened to blackmail me, and was out to get revenge. They somehow did a great job of setting me up. I'm just glad it wasn't worse, since they broke in to my house while I was locked up, and they very well could have killed me."

When I investigated further, he gave his account, saying, "Look, I had enemies. I was at an all time low in my life with an unwanted dirty divorce, and I made some poor friends. I was dealing with some really violent and shady characters at that time, and a few of them said they were going to 'completely ruin me' and they almost did."

Weeks prior to the event, he reported vandalism to his home, reported to the police several attempted break-ins, then while locked up, someone successfully did break in and stole and damaged his property. "Now, that's the one who had it out for me. All because he thought my ex-fiancée had drugs stashed somewhere. This guy even tried to set me up for check fraud, after obtaining banking documents from my glove compartment."

I understood, Stahlsmith couldn't believe he was set up, and didn't have anything to do with this, and he figured it was easier to "take the deal" not knowing what else to do.

"I just caved in and took the blame. I couldn't even describe how this could happen. I just counted my loss and said I would rather live than let this escalate. It was either take the deal, or basically suicide. I was convinced that I wasn't going to be able to prove anything wild to the contrary, because it seemed too far fetched, and I didn't have time to even put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I figured it sounded more ridiculous to tell the whole truth and when under pressure, I just caved in and took the deal. It was easier for me to just take the bullet, because this guy I suspected was a criminal with a warrant already out for his arrest, for burglary, a heroin addict, and a thief, and why I was even associated with him, was beyond me. I knew that. I knew he was bad news. But my ex-fiancée had problems, too, and I think he believed he would find drugs in my house. One time while partying, this guy demanded someone give him drugs, or else, and he threw a fit. I told him to leave, before things escalated, and the next thing I know, my fiancée turns out to be cheating on me, doing heroin, and my house is broken in to, and I'm taken to jail!"

The truth is sometimes more complicated than the court system is even willing to investigate. "The guy who did that, is criminally insane. Now I'm paying the price."

He maintained his innocence and said, "I was totally framed by someone who had it out for me. And he broke in to my house while I was already a victim of his handiwork. He'll end up in prison eventually, that I'm sure. But I never had a voice. Never had a chance to even tell my side of the story. And that is what I am bothered by most in the justice system. I'm just going to do what is required of me and move on."

I asked him, would he let me publish his story, and he said, "I don't see how that will make a difference, but sure." There are two sides to every story, and this one I felt should have a voice. He thanked me after the interview, was very polite and kind, and well-mannered.

Wrongful conviction happens a lot more than people know, because it's how the justice system is designed, and making it easier for someone like Keir Stahlsmith, to "just take the plea" to avoid possible worse sentencing, and an uphill battle that costs a lot of time and even more money.enter image description here


Presumption of innocence is meaningful in the same way as the concept of unalienable rights. It is a construct amounting to a lie, and not a noble lie, rather a malicious lie.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the degree of certainty a juror must have in criminal cases whereas "preponderance of the evidence" is a different degree of certainty seen in civil cases.

You and me and every other citizen of the "top level of civilization" knows that once a person is indicted of a criminal offense, they are believed to be guilty and they are treated guilty even after acquittal or dismissal of the case.

If presumption of innocence were the case, how could one be jailed, cuffed, and demanded to provide bond in exchange for freedom pending trial? If the case is dismissed, it remains on the individuals record.

  • I'm under the impression that "presumption of innocence" always meant that you won't be convicted unless you are proven guilty (whatever "proven" means, which was the only point of my question). I don't think it ever meant that during the judicial process no precautions will be taken to protect the community in case you are actually guilty. I agree with taking precautions about that. Whether it's ok that these precautions include throwing you into a jail with convicted criminals or parading you handcuffed in front of the media or other such uncivilized horrors, it's a different topic. Jul 2, 2015 at 11:21
  • In that case, proven, in a criminal court, means proven beyond a reasonable doubt - the highest burden placed on a complainant / prosecutor in the System. Jul 2, 2015 at 18:03

Let me start out by saying that beyond any reasonable doubt is a very subjective dictum. It isn't set in stone. It probably stems from the belief that the offender must not be denied any of his rights whilst in custody. Even if a person is caught red-handed, he'll still technically be a 'lily-white citizen' in the eyes of the law until proven otherwise. You'd be surprised at how easily the scales can tip in a courtroom. The judge and the jury are perfectly entitled to give certain facts more leverage than others. But what you are asking has very little to do with tribunal drama.

It has more to do with civil-regulatory bodies and law enforcement organisations like the FBI. What this means is that no one can force a confession out of you forcefully and you can avail all your rights until convicted of the charges.

And it is complied and adhered to in most countries. You'd get a lot of heat for not doing so.

Hope this helped!

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