“Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt” on the GMAT

This is the fourth post in the series of articles on real-life facts you need to know for GMAT Critical Reasoning.

Here’s the full list:

“beyond any reasonable doubt”

In any decision in an uncertain situation, we have to set a standard: how sure do we want to be, before we make a decision?  When the stakes are low, we don’t have to be particularly careful, but when something important is at risk, we have to set high standards by which to make the decision.

The US legal system takes this into account, and sets a higher “burden of proof” for criminal cases than for civil cases.  If you lose a civil case (i.e. a lawsuit), then typically you owe someone money — yes, that’s undesirable, but it’s not as a bad as the penalties in a criminal case (i.e. a trial), which often involve time in prison, and sometimes even one’s life!  In a criminal case, it may be that life and death are at stake — arguably, that’s the highest the stakes can get!

The burden of proof in a criminal case is: the prosecutor (the government’s representative of the law) must demonstrate the defendant’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.  In other words, once the prosecutor is done, no reasonable person would think any alternative were possible and therefore would be forced to conclude that the defendant committed the crime — only if it’s clearly that certain, should the jury convict.  This is, by far, the most demanding, the most rigorous burden of proof anywhere in the legal system.  The Founding Fathers set the bar very high, because they wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the scenario of an innocent person being convicted and having to serve time for a crime.  In a criminal case, all 12 people on the criminal jury must unanimously agree that the defendant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt: anything short of that fails to convict the defendant, and the defendant walks away a free person.

The burden of proof in a civil case, a lawsuit, is considerably lower.  Say, person A sues person B — juries are instructed to decide on whichever one has a more convincing story.  You don’t have to reach the level of “beyond any reasonable doubt” — you just have to have a more cogent case than the other side.  Furthermore, to decide in one direction or another, you only need a majority of the six people on the civil jury — it does not have to be unanimous.

It’s very important to recognize — if you read about something that has to be decide by the criterion of “beyond any reasonable doubt”, realize that is by far the most demanding and more rigorous criterion in the entire legal system.  Something on the order of ordinary fiscal policy or mundane political procedures would never be determined by such a lofty standard.

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  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as "member of the month" for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike's Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

5 Responses to “Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt” on the GMAT

  1. Colin F May 16, 2016 at 7:27 am #


    My attempt at flattery 🙂

    No, honestly , you are beyond a reasonable doubt, a very good teacher. I love the way that you put in some real world facts in between your lessons.

  2. Rajan September 15, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Mike….you are just amazing.

    You have written many awesome blogs and articles.


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 15, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Dear Rajan,
      You are quite welcome, my friend! 🙂 Thank you for your kind words! I wish you the very best of good fortune in your studies!
      Mike 🙂

  3. Fabio Alberto May 24, 2014 at 5:32 am #

    Thanks for these blogs. They have really helped me to clarify many concepts and notions i didnt have mainly because Im not a native english speaker. There are many terms and backgrounds i need to incorporate into my knowledge and you make everything really clear me. All of your blogs on this and the quant section are invaluable to me. Really Thanks for your work.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike May 24, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

      Dear Fabio,
      You are more than welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

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