The phrase is one that most people are taught early in primary school, but "innocent until proven guilty" is not as simple a concept as it might seem when you consider how early we begin to discuss it. This idea may be a bedrock principle of our democracy, but it also has a specific legal history. Understanding that history is to the benefit of every person because it is not only relevant when you are facing criminal charges, but also when you are called to participate in the criminal justice system as a witness or a jury member.
What the presumption of innocence means
The Cornell University Legal Information Institute explains the concept of the presumption of innocence quite simply as the idea that until the prosecution has proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused is innocent of any wrongdoing. This means that for every essential element of the case, the prosecution has met this burden, not simply for a majority of them.
In practical terms, this principle has been the dividing line for many juries when determining whether to convict. In fact, it is so popular in the public imagination that televised legal dramas often use it as a plot point during jury deliberation scenes. The role of the defense attorney is not only to present an alternative explanation of the crime, but to do so in a way that holds prosecutors accountable for this burden of proof by demonstrating to the jury when their interpretation of the facts is likely faulty.
How the defense demonstrates reasonable doubt
An experienced criminal defense attorney makes a case for the client by using the following strategies:
- Proving the defendant could not be where the prosecution says the defendant was
- Proving that the prosecution's narrative of the facts of the case is incorrect
- Demonstrating an alternative explanation for circumstantial evidence that nonetheless fits the facts
- Showing how physical evidence and eyewitness testimony could have been misinterpreted
These strategies are made possible by the presumption of innocence, making it one of the most important principles in the American legal system. In fact, it is so important that the idea has spread until it was even adopted by the United Nations as an international standard.
If you are charged with a crime
The best way to exercise your rights after you are charged with a crime is to discuss your case with an attorney who can provide you with relevant advice. That means finding someone with criminal defense experience who knows how to work to present a defense that will work for you.