Legal Sufficiency and Proof

A rookie lawyer mistake that I see even experienced lawyers on both sides of the criminal bar make is this: confusing “legally sufficient evidence” with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. The prosecutor points to a case saying that similar evidence was legally sufficient as proof that the accused will be convicted; the defense lawyer acquiesces and the accused pleads guilty.

Legally sufficient evidence is the constitutional minimum required to sustain a conviction. The test for legal sufficiency is this: could any rational trier of fact have found the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt?

When a court says that the evidence is legally sufficient, it’s not saying that every jury confronted with that evidence would convict, rather it’s saying that a jury could rationally convict.

How is this relevant to a jury? It’s not. A jury charge should never refer to legal sufficiency; a trial court can’t lawfully tell the jury that such-and-such evidence is enough — in Texas, at least, judges are not permitted to comment on the weight of the evidence.

The cases that are worth publishing are the close calls — those in which the lawyer had a straight-faced argument that the State didn’t prove its case. That one jury disagreed, and that a court of appeals upheld the conviction, doesn’t come anywhere close to making a conviction based on similar facts a foregone conclusion. To the contrary, the fact patterns in legal-sufficiency cases are often on the ragged edge of proof.

Just because a jury could rationally convict doesn’t mean that a rational jury would.

0 responses to “Legal Sufficiency and Proof”

  1. Mark, I wish you worked in Oregon too. We have too few attorneys who properly mistrust the system but know how to use it to do their jobs.

    What do you think about the standard practice of so many criminal prosecutors to overcharge, intimidate the accused with the frightening consequences of those charges, and thereby coerce guilty pleas to lesser charges?


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