Presumption of innocence

Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.1

In the United States of America, any person accused of a crime is to be presumed innocent until properly obtained, admissible and relevant evidence is presented to a jury within a Court of Law and that jury determines otherwise.

People are presumed innocent … innocent until a court of law can examine all the evidence and prove otherwise. Until then everything else is … gossip. –Gil Grissom (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation)2

The presumption of innocence is the reason when referring to an accused individual with regard to a crime we use the moniker "alleged": "alleged murder", "alleged rapist", "alleged terrorist". Interchangeably the word "suspect" or "suspected" could be used as well: "murder suspect" or "suspected terrorist".

Our system of justice is established in its current form with the intent of protecting a person’s rights. One could say you have a right of innocence, or a right of presumed innocence — no person has a right to accuse you of a crime without adequate evidence, a standard known as probable cause.

Probable cause is the level of evidence necessary to secure a warrant of arrest.3 It is not, however, the level of evidence necessary for a finding of guilt, which is the far higher standard called "beyond reasonable doubt". I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Yet one major problem we have in this country is the assumption by the general public that when a person is apprehended by law enforcement, they have found the person who actually committed the crime. The reason for this I feel is mostly psychological — people sleep better at night when arrests are made in major crimes, even if the police did not apprehend the right suspect, and there is a loss of faith or trust in law enforcement when the wrong person is apprehended or an accused person is acquitted at trial.

One phrase I’ve heard numerous times from individuals of various levels of education and intelligence can be paraphrased as this: why would the police arrest someone if the arrested person is not guilty?

The level of evidence necessary for a finding of guilt within a Court of Law is known as "beyond reasonable doubt". While not easy to define, the concept of beyond reasonable doubt has a long history in our system of criminal justice. An attempt to define this was made by the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1850 and has become generally accepted even by the Supreme Court of the United States as a proper definition:

[I]t is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt.4

Proof to a reasonable and moral certainty. Reasonable doubt itself is the doubt of the account of a matter that causes a person to hesitate in saying to a moral certainty the accused is guilty. This is not the impossible standard of "beyond a shadow of a doubt", but slightly below that.

Laying an undeserving judgment of guilt upon an individual also has severe religious implications, which in post-Renaissance England inhibited a juror’s ability to convict for fear of retribution or vengeance by God. The reasonable doubt standard arose originally not to make it more difficult to convict, but actually to make it easier by way of releasing the juror from the fear of God.

And yet in today’s society we have no problem laying judgment upon people who are accused of a crime. And even beyond accusations of a criminal nature, we have no problem laying judgments upon others, even in our predominantly Christian culture where in the Bible it states:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.5

Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.6

I’m not a Christian scholar, but I interpret these two passages of the Bible to basically say that one should not lay judgment by any measure you would not have judgment laid upon yourself, and one should not judge by appearance alone. If you pass judgment hastily upon others, expect judgment to be passed hastily upon you.

In the context of this discussion, it means this: If you provide your fellow man no presumption of innocence, you have no right to demand it for yourself. Allow others to be presumed innocent when accused, and you shall also be presumed innocent in the face of an accusation.

And note I said "fellow man", not "fellow citizen" or something similar. The presumption of innocence is to be extended to everyone, every individual accused of a crime, regardless of whether that individual is a citizen of the United States or not, legal resident or not. The presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle not only of our criminal justice system, but of the American society.

It is one of the reasons why peoples of all walks of life come to the United States, legally and not, year after year. Here in the United States if you are accused of a crime, you are to be presumed innocent, not just in the eyes of the law, but also in the eyes of our society, unless and until evidence shows otherwise.

Resources

Whitman, James Q. (2008, February 25). "What Are the Origins of ‘Reasonable Doubt’?" History New Network.

Cited Resources

References   [ + ]

1. "The burden of proof rests on who asserts, not on who denies."
2. Donahue, A. (Writer) & Cannon, D. (Director). (2001). "Gentle, Gentle" [Television Series Episode]. In D. Cannon, C. Chvatal, & W. Petersen (Producers), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. New York: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
3. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires this: "…and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." (emphasis added)
4. Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295, 320 (1850)
5. Matthew 7:1-2
6. John 7:24