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Origin and meaning: Benefit of the doubt

Benefit of the doubt refers to an adoption of a positive opinion or judgement when there is some but not sufficient evidence to think otherwise. In legal terms, benefit of the doubt is referred to as reasonable doubt.


Reasonable doubt
In law, benefit of the doubt means that a defendant is considered innocent and acquitted by the jury if his or her guilt has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
If having examined all the evidence during legal proceedings in a criminal court of law, a juror still entertains a degree of doubt as to the guilt of the accused person, the juror finds in favour of the defendant and pronounces him or her not guilty.
Reasonable doubt is sometimes linked to moral certainty. First use of reasonable doubt
The first documented use of the term reasonable doubt appears in 18th century English and American case law.
It is reported (Kenney 1995) that the term was first used in Irish treason trials in 1798 where the defence stated that “if the jury entertain a reasonable doubt upon the truth of the testimony of witnesses... they are bound” to acquit.
An earlier use is reported in the Boston Massacre Trials of 1770. Benefit of the doubt in the 19th and 20th centuries
Reasonable doubt was accepted as “the accurate description of the degree of doubt necessary for acquittal of a criminal defendant” by the 19th century when it became widely used as a standard in the criminal justice system.
In the 20th century, reasonable doubt was given constitutional status in the United States.
The benefit of the doubt is a legal standard that reduces the risk of false convictions.

Meaning of benefit of the doubt

In his article “Fifth amendment” S. Kenney details the meaning given to reasonable doubt by U.S. courts.
Reasonable doubt was defined as moral certainty.
The accused person is presumed to be innocent and entitled to a verdict of not guilty if his guilt is not satisfactorily shown.
If the jurors cannot reach a conviction on moral certainty they should acquit. Reasonable doubt was defined as a doubt which arises from actual evidence as opposed to a mere possibility, or imaginary doubt. Final word
The Federal Judicial Centre refers to the benefit of the doubt as follows:
“Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves you firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt. ... If... you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty. If... you think there is real possibility that he is not guilty, you must give him the benefit of the doubt and find him not guilty.”

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