What's the difference between a civil and a criminal conviction?
O.J. Simpson is NOT guilty as judged by criminal court. Yet a civil court held him accountable. I see him as NOT a murderer. So, how is the civil court's determination different from the criminal? And is O.J. still NOT guilty of murder?
You are not alone in being confused about how a person acquitted of murder in a criminal trial can be held liable for a victim's wrongful death in a civil trial.
The first step to understanding this seeming contradiction is to know that a criminal prosecution involves different laws, a different court system, and different burdens of proof. Specifically, the definition of first degree murder in the context of the O.J. case requires that the act be done deliberately and with a great deal of malice directed toward the victim. And to convict in the criminal court, the case against the defendant must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a civil case for wrongful death, on the other hand, you have to show only that the defendant was legally responsible for the death. But, to get punitive damages, as the plaintiffs did in the O.J. case, you have to show that the defendant acted recklessly. The burden of proof in a civil case is preponderance of the evidence -- a much lesser burden than is required in a criminal case.
So, while a criminal jury might reasonably fail to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and acquit the accused, a civil jury might also reasonably find by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she acted recklessly and should be held civilly accountable for the death.
Is the former football hero Orenthal James Simpson a murderer? A civil jury found it more likely than not that he caused the death of his wife and her friend. A criminal jury was unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt that O.J. committed first degree murder. Seen this way, there is no contradiction.
Learn more about Criminal Law.