Short of undeniable video evidence or multiple firsthand accounts, guilt is established "beyond a reasonable doubt".

Is there any kind of distinction made where the legal system understands that it's impossible to categorically state that someone did something in the absence of such irrefutable evidence? False convictions do happen, so I'm curious if we have an eloquent way of saying "I can't say with absolute certainty that you did this thing, but a number of your peers have viewed the information available and decided that you did it."

Are there any side effects where a finding of guilt (or, I suppose, a not guilty finding) is not enough to establish a factual argument elsewhere?

1 Answer 1


In a US criminal case, the jury (or judge if a non-jury trial) either finds the accused guilty or not guilty.

"Guilty" means (or should mean) that the finder of fact was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty. That is, that the accused did the criminal acts, that no legal defense applied (such as self-defense, or insanity), and that any required state of mind (such as "willful" or "premeditated" or "knowing") applied. There is no separate wording for a verdict which is "absolutely certain" as opposed to one which is "just certain enough to justify a conviction".

A verdict of 'not-guilty' means that the jury (or judge) did not find a guilty verdict to be justified. Perhaps they were convinced that someone else did the criminal act. Perhaps the proof was not good enough to meet the "reasonable doubt" standard. Perhaps a defense applied. Perhaps the needed state of mind was not proved. All of these result in a verdict of "not guilty". There is no language in the verdict that specifies which it was, except for the specialized "not guilty by reason of insanity". However, in some cases a jury may find the defendant guilty of a lesser included offense. For example, a jury may find a person charged with murder guilty only of manslaughter. Or a person charged with reckless driving might be found guilty only of careless driving.

A criminal verdict may or may not be definitive in a separate but related case. For example, a murder verdict in a case over the insurance policy on the life of the person killed. That will depend on the nature of the related case, and the law of the particular jurisdiction involved -- in the US, this will mostly be a matter of state law.

  • It might be worth mentioning the weird legal corner-case of an Alford plea, where the defendant pleads guilty but maintains their innocence. I'm not sure whether this counts as a "finding of fact" in the legal sense. Jul 8, 2019 at 19:05
  • @michael, note that in Idaho v Howry it was said: "Although an Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty amid assertions of innocence, it does not require a court to accept those assertions. The sentencing court may, of necessity, consider a broad range of information, including the evidence of the crime, the defendant's criminal history and the demeanor of the defendant, including the presence or absence of remorse." The plea does not seem to be a finding of fact, except the fact that the defendant asserts innocence. Jul 8, 2019 at 19:15

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