How Far Does A Shadow Of A Doubt Go In Criminal Defense?

One of the defense's main goals in most criminal cases is to case doubt on the prosecution's arguments. This happens because the standard of proof is that the prosecutor must prove the case beyond a shadow of a doubt. What exactly does that mean, though, and how far can a criminal defense attorney go in casting doubt on a case?


It's worth taking a moment to first note that reasonableness governs all of this. A defendant cannot make a highly existential argument about how nothing is truly knowable, for example.

The law wants to know whether a reasonable person, upon a fair hearing of the evidence and arguments, would have a shadow of a doubt about the defendant's guilt. This means unreasonable and far-out arguments don't count.

For example, a lawyer can't claim someone besides the defendant committed an assault if there's evidence showing nobody else was in a room beside the defendant and the alleged victim. At most, the defense might assert that the alleged victim may have committed self-harm. Even then, a criminal defense lawyer would probably avoid directly pursuing this line of argument because the prosecution could potentially refute it with evidence of the angles involved in the blows struck during the alleged assault.

Sowing Doubt

Oftentimes, a shadow of a doubt is cast when the defense tests the limits of what the prosecution can prove. For example, a defense attorney will want to know what a witness could actually see at the time of an alleged incident. This might involve taking photos at the scene to show that a witness had a partially obstructed view.

Generally, folks in the criminal defense world prefer to make the prosecution do their job rather than assert something specific. It's typically best to sow doubt here and there by asking if someone could reach a specific conclusion about a piece of evidence or testimony.

The Judge Will Rule

If the prosecution and defense disagree about whether an argument is presentable, it is ultimately the judge who will rule. For example, a lawyer might argue that a blood-alcohol content test isn't trustworthy because certain procedures weren't followed or the equipment was faulty. The defense would register its concerns with the court, and if there are concerns, the judge would ask the prosecution to prove the defense isn't right. Frequently, an attorney will pick away at small bits of a case this way to expand how far the shadow of doubt casts on the prosecution's arguments.

Contact a local criminal defense law firm to learn more.