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Referring to the O.J. case, how can a civil court (or any legitimate court system) determine that you have indeed beat someone to death, now we are ordering you to pay damages and then you may walk free... this goes so badly against my sense of justice that I was wondering if anyone has a justification for it. In Finland where I'm from, the charge for causing a death in any way is always a criminal charge; you can't start a civil suit over it (as far as I know).

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    Not sure in the specific OJ case, but in the US there is a thing called Double Jeopardy. If OJ was tried in a criminal court but was found to be not guilty, he could go on TV the next day and show a video of him killing the person and the police couldn't do anything (unless they were able to prove the original case is a mistrial). However, he is still able to be sued in civil court, as double jeopardy does not apply in civil cases. – SGR Sep 29 '16 at 11:21
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    Just to be clear: he walked free because he was acquitted of the criminal charges. It's not like criminals can just decide to pay damages so they can avoid prison. – phoog Sep 29 '16 at 12:35
  • If he provided video of himself doing it after the trial and that video was not already known to prosecutors it would be significant new evidence, and grounds for a retrial. – Nij Sep 30 '16 at 8:57
  • @Nij That's not correct. In the US, there is only a single case I'm aware of in which anyone has ever been retried after acquittal, and it was a bench trial in which the defendant had bribed the judge. There is no exception to double jeopardy for new evidence under any circumstances, no matter how convincing that new evidence is. – cpast Jul 29 '17 at 20:18
  • In Finland per the original asker, and in several other countries, new evidence can be the cause for and considered in a retrial despite prior acquittal. – Nij Jul 29 '17 at 22:54
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They are two different courts, with different standards of proof. In a criminal court, the standard of proof is "guilty beyond any reasonable doubt". In a civil court, the standard of proof is "more likely guilty than not guilty". Actually, in a civil court it's not "guilty", it's often "liable for damages".

It's obvious that there will always be cases where the evidence lies somewhere between these two.

Consider what the reasons for both court cases are: In the first case, it's the state against you. The state doesn't suffer any injustice if you are not convicted, and the state is very powerful, that's why the standard of proof is high. In a civil court, you have often two private persons fighting it out. If you are correctly accused of breaking my arm and I sue you for damages, then if you are not convicted, I am suffering a broken arm and all the associated pain and cost. A standard as high as in a criminal court would be entirely unfair towards the victim.

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    It might be confusing to use the words "guilty" and "convicted" with respect to civil cases. "Liable" is the word I would use. – Nate Eldredge Sep 29 '16 at 13:44
  • "that's why the standard of proof is high": also because the penalty is more severe. – phoog Sep 29 '16 at 18:30
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    @phoog: In cases where you pay damages because you damaged stuff, the criminal case might be quite harmless (like careless driving, negligence and so on) even though the damage caused could be massive. Of course not in a murder + damages case. – gnasher729 Sep 30 '16 at 8:19
  • @phoog: It's also important that in a civil case there are two sides wanting justice. If damages were only paid in "liable beyond reasonable doubt" cases, then the standard of proof for being denied damages would be "existence of reasonable doubt", which would be quite unfair to the victim. – gnasher729 Sep 30 '16 at 8:22
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    In a criminal case, the sides are not equal. If I claim that you destroyed my car worth $20,000 then either I lose $20,000 or you lose $20,000. If the state claims you murdered your wife, either you go to jail for a very long time, or the prosecutor is slightly unhappy about losing the case. So in the civil case we have the same stakes; in the criminal case the stakes are very different. – gnasher729 Oct 10 '16 at 12:36
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California is a common law jurisdiction and is a direct descendent of English common law as are most ex-British colonies. See What different legal-systems are there?

In common law systems there are two parallel legal systems (I actually think this is true in civil law systems like Finland's as well):

  • Criminal law: where the state (i.e. the government) prosecutes an alleged criminal and, if they are convicted beyond reasonable doubt by a jury of their peers (or more rarely a judge), they are punished by deprivation of life (in jurisdictions with capital punishment), liberty (including imprisonment, community service etc.) and/or by paying a fine to the government.

  • Civil law: where a plaintiff(s) bring a defendant(s) before the court and seek restitution in the form of an order from the court for the defendant to do (or stop doing) something and/or monetary damages. The plaintiff needs to prove the wrong on the balance of probabilities.A private person cannot punish another person, for obvious reasons.

Wrongs may be criminal or civil or both. For example:

  • Speeding is an offence against the state - unless you hit someone, no one is harmed so it is not a civil wrong. The state can prosecute you (usually summarily by issuing a ticket) but no one can sue you.
  • Breaking a contract is a wrong against the other party to the contract - it is not a crime. The other party can sue you but the state cannot prosecute you.
  • Stealing from someone is both a crime (larceny) and a tort1 (conversion). The state can prosecute you and throw you in gaol and the person you stole from can sue you to have either their property returned or be paid compensation.

If you cause someone's death then there may be crime, usually murder or manslaughter or there may be no crime (e.g. selling people cigarettes). Irrespective, if you killed the person unjustifiably, that person (or more precisely their estate/heirs/dependents) can sue you for compensation for their loss.

Specifically, in the case of O.J. Simpson he was prosecuted for murder for which he was acquitted i.e. he was found "not guilty" and sued for wrongful death for which he was found liable and ordered to pay damages.

  1. A tort is a specific type of civil wrong under the equity part of the common law system (as opposed to the common law part of the common law system).

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