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If you are ever called to jury duty, you will be asked to find the facts from the evidence presented by the attorneys. The case may be brought upon criminal charges against an individual by the state prosecutor, or it may be a civil case brought by one party against another, most often to settle a dispute that is ultimately over money. In criminal cases, the very freedom and liberty of one human being is at stake. In civil cases, the dispute is over property, most often money, in one form or another.
What is the difference between criminal and civil trials? The difference primarily lies in the burden of proof. When the very personal liberty and freedom of an individual is at stake, the burden under the American system of justice is a heavy one, the most difficult to carry in our system of justice. The evidence must prove “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty of each element of the crime he/she is charged with. In civil cases, liberty and freedom are not at stake. Rather, in essence, the jury is asked to assess whether one party owes the other a debt, and if so, to establish the amount owed. Whether the allegations are that a contract was broken, or that an injury or death was caused by an accident that the defendant caused or could have prevented, the issues to be decided are whether a debt is owed and, if so, in what amount. In such cases, a verdict requires that the jury find that the “greater weight of the evidence” proves that the debt is owed and that it is owed in the amount that the jury determines. In other words, the evidence shows that the injured party is “more likely right than wrong” that they are owed a debt by the defendant they have sued. This is a much lighter burden of proof because no one is being punished or having their freedom threatened by the jury’s decision.
The burden of proof is, therefore, where the difference between criminal and civil liability lies. In civil cases, the evidence must establish liability is more likely than not. In civil cases, the evidence must establish guilt beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.