In the United States, defendants in criminal trials are afforded a “presumption of innocence”. It’s something that Boulder Colorado criminal defense attorneys—and attorneys across the country—greatly appreciate, but what does it mean, exactly, and why is it so important? That’s exactly what we’ll be touching on today, so read on to learn what you’ll need to know.
It’s a fairly simple legal principle to grasp: any and every person accused of a crime should be considered innocent until they are proven guilty. This means the legal burden of proof is on the prosecution, and it’s up to the prosecutor in any given case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual accused of the crime is the individual who committed it.
Now, you might think something important like this would be stated explicitly in the US Constitution, but, speaking technically, it isn’t. Instead, the principle is justified in US law as being derived from the earlier English common law, which included such a presumption of innocence, and was carried over after the United States declared independence.
There’s also the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Both of these make mention to due process, and due process, by-and-large, means the government has to go through the correct steps if they intend to deprive you of freedom or property.
The right to be presumed innocent is, thus, a fundamental part of due process, and thus, a Constitutionally-protected right (even though it isn’t directly stated within the text). Coupled with this is the idea that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s the highest standard of proof—beyond measures like clear and convincing evidence or a preponderance of evidence—and serves as means to avoid falsely condemning possibly-innocent individuals.
Now, what this means exactly isn’t always clearly defined. Knowing that it’s the highest standard of evidence, however, and should thus be greater than the others makes it possible to understand the meaning by comparing the other standards.
A preponderance of evidence, for instance, means that just over half believe it to be true, and it’s the lowest burden of proof in the American legal system. Clear and convincing evidence, meanwhile, generally means you’ve proven something with greater than three-fourth’s likelihood. Beyond a reasonable doubt surpasses both of these standards, so there has to be a high likelihood of guilt for a jury to be thoroughly convinced and agree to convict. The prosecutor in a case must show that, once all the evidence has been presented, there is only one conclusion that makes sense—that the defendant is guilty of the crime.
So high is this standard of proof, that the defense in a case doesn’t technically have to prove anything. They could simply do nothing, and, in the end, if the prosecutor fails to hit the mark, a jury may still deliver a verdict of not guilty. Few (if any) defense attorneys would do this, naturally, but the point is that it’s up to the prosecution to make their case.
And all of this, taken together, is vital to the American legal system because it limits the potential for prosecutorial abuse and innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit.