Written by attorney Steven Edward Weir

Innocent until proven guilty?

So, is a person "Innocent until proven guilty"?

No, NO, a thousand times NOOO!!!

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the legal standard mistated in this way. Forget what your neighbor or your high school civics teacher said. Forget what you heard on TV. Nobody is ever innocent until proven guilty, either in real life, or in a real courtroom. And this isn't just a matter of semantics. It has real life implications. So let's start by understanding where the phrase comes from, and what it means in the real world.

The correct way of stating this principle is that an individual is PRESUMED innocent IN THE EYES OF THE LAW until such time as there is a finding of guilt by a judge or a jury. This is what is known as a "legal fiction". It is a way to treat people when we have not come to a point in time where we have enough information produced as admissible evidence in court to consider a person guilty of a crime, and it's time to make a determination of whether or not we think s/he is guilty. We assume, without regard to the actual truth, that the person is innocent, until such time that such a determination is made by the judge or a jury that the individual is indeed guilty. Then and only then are we supposed to treat the individual as guilty in the eyes of the law.

Now, that sounds really nice, and most of the time it works out okay, but you need to understand, anybody who actually murdered or robbed or raped someone is guilty. And if you didn't commit any crimes, you're not guilty. No judge or jury can make a truly innocent man guilty, nor can they make a guilty person innocent. They can cause an innocent person to be treated as though s/he is guilty, or a guilty person to be treated as innocent.

There is also the reality that jurors quite often vote on appearances. The guy "looked" guilty. Trust me, it really happens. I had a guy who was charged with selling drugs. The detective said nobdoy ever said they heard of my guy selling drugs. He also said that nobody ever said they saw my guy selling drugs. The jury, playing CSI in the jury room, decided my guy must have included some marijuana in the glove box of a car he sold, and convicted him of the crime. Nobody testified to anything remotely close that, and only that he sold a car, but they didn't like him because he was poor, old, and not well dressed.

Be careful how you judge. Many innocent people have spent time in prison, and many guilty people never see the inside of a jail. And remember, guilty people are always guilty, and innocent will remain innocent, even if falsely accused and wrongly convicted, or given a pass because sufficient evidence was not offered to gain a conviction.

So the next time you hear the false claim that people are innocent until proven guilty, politely let them know that such a statement is not true.

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