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Burden and standard of proof in murder cases

To prove that the accused is the murderer is one of the most difficult tasks faced by a criminal lawyer. The mood of proof may take diverse forms, it may be by both direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. It may be through dying declaration, confession, evidence of near relations and so on. One or more modes of proof may be telescoped in a particular case. it may be borne in mind that burden of proving the case initially is on the prosecution which must prove it beyond reasonable doubt.

However, if the other parameters of the offence stands established, then the plea of non-discovery of the dead body of the victim is of no consequence in proving the corpus delicit in murder.[1]

As stated by Phipson on Evidence in Criminal Cases the prosecution discharge their evidential burden by adducing sufficient evidence to raise a prima facie case against the accused. If no evidence is called for the defence the tribunal of fact must decide whether the prosecution has succeeded in discharging its legal burden by proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In the absence of any defence evidence, the chances that the prosecution has so succeeded are greater. Hence, the accused may be said to be under an evidential burden if the prosecution has established prima facie case. Discharge of the evidential burden by the defence is not a pre-requisite to an acquittal. The accused is entitled to be acquitted “if at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner.” The principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained.[2] It’s an essential principle of our criminal law that a criminal charge has to be established by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt. The philosophy underlying this rule is the oft quoted maxim that it is better than ten guilty persons should escape than one innocent suffer.

Read: How to investigate a murder case?

The time honoured expression that the court must be satisfied “beyond reasonable doubt” has been accepted in the Anglo Saxon would as the standard of proof in criminal cases. Since the decision in Woolmington’s case the discretion to the jury has been that they must be satisfied of the prisoner’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt if they want to convict him.[3] Lord Goddard suggested in England that this phrase should be abandoned. He had great experience in criminal matters. He suggested that the expression ‘completely satisfied’ or ‘fully sure’ should be accepted as substitutes.[4]

The fourth edition of Halsbury’s laws of England goes so far as to say that the phrase “reasonable doubt” should be avoided. No one has yet invented or discovered a mode of measurement for the intensity of human belief better than this formula of proof “beyond reasonable doubt”.

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What does the expression “beyond reasonable doubt” mean?

For a doubt to stand in the way of conviction of guilt it must be a real doubt and a reasonable doubt. A doubt which after full and fair consideration of the evidence the judge rely on reasonable grounds entertained. If the data leaves the mind of the trier in equilibrium, the decision must be against the party having the burden of persuasion. If the mind of the adjudication tribunal is evenly balanced as to whether or not the accused is guilty, it is its duty to acquit.[5]

[1] Lal Bahadur v. State of NCT of Delhi, (2013) 4 SCC 557

[2] Phipson on Evidence, 13th ed. P 49

[3] Woomington v. Director of Public Prosecutions, (1935) AC 462

[4] R. V. Hepworth, (1955) 2 QE 600 (603)

[5] Haris J. Mal v. State (Delhi Administration), 1982 CrLJ 2123

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