What is the Presumption of Innocence?

Mona D. Rigdon

The phrase "innocent until proven guilty" has become cliché, but the concept is still alive and well. Presumption of innocence is a legal concept that means an accuser is required to prove allegations through clear, compelling evidence before a guilty verdict is rendered by the trier of fact against a defendant. This is commonly referred to as the burden of proof. The rights of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty give rise to a bevvy of procedural laws that state what type of evidence is allowed to be used to prove alleged guilt. Should the trier of fact have any doubt after admissible evidence is presented, the defendant must be acquitted, or pronounced not guilty.

Presumption of innocence states that an accuser must provide substantial evidence before a judge renders a defendant guilty.
Presumption of innocence states that an accuser must provide substantial evidence before a judge renders a defendant guilty.

Criminal trials can be heard by a judge and a jury, or by a judge alone. In cases where a jury is the trier of fact, the judge makes decisions that relate to statutory and procedural legal issues. Admissibility of evidence, for example, is very important in maintaining the presumption of innocence. Should a judge allow irrelevant or prejudicial evidence, a jury might not focus upon the facts of the case instead of background, hearsay or something completely irrelevant. Conviction by distraction is not fair play in most modern court rooms.

Criminal trials may be heard by both a judge and jury, or singularly by a judge.
Criminal trials may be heard by both a judge and jury, or singularly by a judge.

In cases where a judge is the trier of fact, the judge determines the admissibility of evidence and hears testimony, reviews exhibits and examines physical evidence. The judge already has seen the evidence offered, so some people feel that it might be hard for the judge not to consider the evidence, despite its admissibility. For this reason, most felony criminal trials are presided over by a judge and decided by a jury. In some cases, however, there are circumstance that make it difficult for a jury to maintain the presumption of innocence. Cases involving well-known or widely disliked defendants, defendants who do not wish to testify on their own behalf or those that involve complex legal issues often end up with a bench trial.

Jury trials are designed to introduce fairness into the justice system.
Jury trials are designed to introduce fairness into the justice system.

Though the concept of presumption of innocence might sound simple, it is not always an easy right to protect. Most modern democracies have recognized this right, but the practice is widely subjective. Some nations have an investigating magistrate, the presence of which removes the neutral, blank slate idea of what a judge is supposed to be. Whether presumption of innocence can be maintained in these types of courts is hotly debated.

Just because someone is arrested for a crime does not automatically make them at fault.
Just because someone is arrested for a crime does not automatically make them at fault.

Many people complain that some institutions jump the gun and punish individuals who have not yet been found guilty or who have actually been found not guilty by a court of law. Students at many universities are expelled if they are indicted of a crime, regardless of whether they are found guilty. Companies fire or refuse to hire individuals who have been charged with certain crimes, despite the status or outcome. Courts that set high bail to detain defendants deemed a flight risk have been criticized under this principle. These practices seem contradictory to the legal rights of the accused and unconvicted, and in these cases, presumption of innocence becomes more of a theory of the ideal than a practiced right.

Most modern democratic societies have rejected presumption of guilt in favor of presumption of innocence. For someone to be required to prove their innocence has been classified as a contradiction to principles of freedom and enlightenment. The use presumption of innocence is integral to a defendant and defense counsel reminding the judge and jury to focus on whether the prosecution proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is what it all boils down to in most democratic nations.

Defendants who do not wish to testify on their own behalf may end up with a bench trial.
Defendants who do not wish to testify on their own behalf may end up with a bench trial.

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