In America, there are four main pillars that constitute our criminal justice system. While these pillars are most likely common knowledge, most Americans fail to recognize their true importance and relevance to our collective freedom. These pillars are the presumption of innocence, the government has the burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the accused has the right to remain silent. Each one of these judicial maxims is an institutional juggernaut.
While all these legal principles important, the presumption of innocence seems to be the glue that holds the system together. In terms of a criminal trial, the presumption is not some kitschy catchphrase, marking slogan, or colloquial motto. It is the basis of the American criminal justice system. Without the presumption of innocence framework, it is doubtful the other legal principles would have any real significance and would probably be rendered meaningless. As the keystone of the criminal justice system, it is incumbent upon all Americans to cherish, protect, and guard against any erosion of the presumption of innocence.
The presumption of innocence can trace its humble roots back to the Roman Empire.[i] Over the ages, many different civilizations including the Jews, Muslims, and Catholics have adopted some form of the principle. These civilizations coveted and revered the presumption of innocence making their justice systems legitimate. While our system of justice grew out of the British system, the presumption of innocence is much older than all of Britannia.[ii]
In evidence, there is a concept called a presumption. The idea is this: “a presumption is an assumption of fact which the law makes from the existence of another fact or group of facts found or otherwise established.”[iii] Because someone’s freedom and liberty are at stake, the “presumption of innocence” is recognized as a more powerful presumption called a “presumption of law.”[iv] The magnitude of this statement cannot be overstated for this reason– if the government cannot overcome the presumption beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused is not guilty as a matter of law and acquitted of the charges.
In other words, the presumption of innocence is this all-powerful aura or cloak that surrounds the accused. It is the counterbalance to the all-powerful government. The government has nearly unlimited resources to prosecute an accused. So, to make the system as fair as possible to the accused (and all persons charged with a crime), the system was designed with a nearly insurmountable presumption – – the presumption of innocence. Any if the government misses the mark (even by an iota) and does not carry its burden beyond a reasonable doubt, the presumption is designed to acquit the accused of the charges.
In Florida, here is an excerpt from the jury instruction:
To overcome the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which the defendant is charged was committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime.
The defendant is not required to present evidence or prove anything.[v]
Remember, the presumption is not a criminal justice formality. Even as the jury listens to closing arguments after all the evidence is presented, the jury is required, mandated, and commanded to presume and believe the accused is innocent of the charges.
As a practioner, I sometimes wonder if jurors really and truly understand how awesome and powerful the presumption of innocence is. It demands an acquittal by design. It commands the jurors to find someone not guilty unless the case is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That means – even if juror thinks or believes or just knows that the accused did what he was accused of the juror must acquit (otherwise there will have been a miscarriage of justice). Justice cannot be served if the jurors refuse to follow the law.
If a case is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, do not blame the accused or the system. Blame the government for not doing a better job in terms of presenting the necessary quantum of evidence to conclusively prove the accused’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Remember, the reasonable doubt standard is there to ensure that the juror does not have to guess, speculate, or hypothesize about guilt. The case was either proven beyond a reasonable doubt or not.
And if not, then let slip the presumption of innocence and free the accused because the case was not proven. Justice is served when the system operates as it was designed. Every case comes to the courthouse without any preconceived notions. Justice Thurgood Marshall reiterated that “the purpose of a criminal trial is as much about the acquittal of an innocent person as it is the conviction of a guilty one.”[vi] Contrary to popular belief, criminal trials are also about clearing one’s name and reputation, or making the government put up or shut up.
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
If can assist you with any criminal questions, then please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your case.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, then please feel free to leave me a comment below and thank you reading this blog article. You can also check out the author at his profile at AVVO.com (Candela)
Image source: pexels.com
[i] See Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 15 S.Ct. 394, 39 L.Ed. 481 (1895).
[ii] William Wirt Howe, Studies in the Civil Law, and its Relation to the Law of England and America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896), pg. 51. “In one of his elaborate orations in the United States Senate Mr. Charles Sumner spoke of ‘the generous presumption of the common law in favor of the innocence of an accused person;’ yet it must be admitted that such a presumption cannot be found in Anglo-Saxon law, where sometimes the presumption seems to have been the other way. And in a very recent case in the Supreme Court of the United States, the case of Coffin, 156 U. S. 432, it is pointed out that this presumption was fully established in the Roman law, and was preserved in the canon law.”
[iii] See §90.301(1), Fla. Stat.
[iv] “The fact that the presumption of innocence is recognized as a presumption of law, and is characterized by the civilians as a presumptio juris, demonstrates that it is evidence in favor of the accused. For, in all systems of law, legal presumptions are treated as evidence giving rise to resulting proof, to the full extent of their legal efficacy.” Coffin, 156 U.S. at 460.
[v] Florida Standard Jury Instruction, Criminal Jury Instruction 3.7 Plea of Not Guilty; Reasonable Doubt; and Burden of Proof.
[vi] United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 692, 105 S.Ct. 3375, 87 L.Ed.2d 481 (1985).