Prosecution Failures and the Burden of Proof in Criminal Law

Recently, we have seen our federal prosecutors fail in two very big criminal cases – John Edwards and Roger Clemmons. What does this say about the burden of proof in criminal court versus the burden of proof in the court of public opinion?

Our criminal defense and litigation attorney is a former prosecutor himself. He has some insights you won’t read about in the paper. Here is what he thinks: Prosecutors employed at the U.S. Attorney’s Office are at the top of their game and hand pick the criminal cases they wish to pursue. Because of this, the successful prosecution rate of the U.S. Attorneys is unparalleled. 

However, even the Federal prosecutors can succumb to political pressure. John Edwards, if successfully prosecuted, would have been the poster boy for what happens when you break the campaign finance laws, and Roger Clemens would have been the example of what happens when you lie to Congress. But the jury in each case had other ideas, and in our system of criminal justice, the jury holds the power. In the court of public opinion, most people would agree that John Edwards probably knew campaign funds were being diverted for the non-campaign related purpose of hiding his mistress and their unborn child.

Many people also believe that Roger Clemens probably used performance enhancing drugs to prolong his career and later went on to deny using such drugs when testifying before congress. These are technically crimes. However, under our Constitution a defendant cannot be convicted of a crime if the jury believes the person PROBABLY committed the crime they are charged with. That is a key point the press often overlooks. The prosecutor has the very high burden to prove criminal charges “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the judge or jury, whatever the case may be, is instructed that this burden MUST be met before a person can be found guilty of a crime.

These two criminal cases show how a jury is able to put aside their outside knowledge of the situation and judge each of these individuals based solely on the evidence they were provided. The layman on the outside looking in may believe that justice was not done in these criminal cases.

Maybe they are correct, but the criminal justice system worked the way it was intended. The high burden placed on the prosecutor in this country is to assure that when a person is found guilty of a crime, the evidence is clearly present and the jury is not basing a conclusion of guilt or innocence on gossip, coercion or the reputation of the person charged. These two juries obviously took their job very seriously and applied that standard to the facts they were presented with, regardless of public opinion.

Discover what you need to know about criminal law. Click here to see our Free Legal Consumer Guide on criminal law cases in Maryland and get answer to your questions today.

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Andrews, Bongar, Gormley & Clagett is one of the oldest and largest law firms in Southern Maryland. We have been serving clients here for over 50 years. We have more attorneys and a larger staff than most other local law firms, so we can handle a wider variety of legal matters. Each attorney concentrates his or her practice in a few key areas, so you can be assured of the expertise you need.


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