What is the Presumption of Innocence in a Court Case

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a phrase often heard on TV courtroom dramas.  However, where did this concept come from, and what does it mean? Why is it important, and are there problems with the current trends of thinking on this important matter?

Unlike “Latin law”, sometimes called “Roman law”, rules, the traditional Anglo-American system of justice has the guiding principle of the presumption of innocence.  Roman law, on the other hand, has the presumption of guilt, according to Francois Quintard-Morenas’ article in The American Journal of Comparative Law.

In spite of it being called “Roman law”, however, there are cases of actual historical Roman law in which the principle of the presumption of innocent was trotted out.  In fact, as is documented on TalkLeft’s article “The History of the Presumption of Innocence”, one can trace the “presumption to Deuteronomy, … Sparta and Athens.”

In a courtroom, the accused has a charge leveled against him or her. The presumption of innocence means the court is required to provide proof they committed the act they are accused of beyond a reasonable doubt. In reality, this could mean that guilty parties go free if there is not enough evidence to make the case against them.  However, it also means it is less likely that an innocent person will be found guilty.

To put it another way, no one can prove a negative. If the person is assumed to be guilty, then they are required to prove they did not do something. This is as difficult as it is to prove that Big Foot does not exist. Lack of evidence of Big Foot does not actually prove the species does not exist, as all it may mean is that he, she or they are very good at hiding. Technically, a person cannot prove they were not at a crime scene. Rather, they must instead prove they were somewhere else, and, barring a twin or a time machine, it is impossible to be in two places at one time.

Requiring the presumption of innocence places the burden on proof squarely on the shoulders of the accusers in order to prevent the unjust punishment of the innocent.

That’s the theory, at least. Going back to Quintard-Morenas’ article, however, Franco and Anglo-American notions of the presumption of innocence have taken divergent paths. The French view it as both a rule of proof and as a shield against punishment until found guilty. He points out that newscasters often rake the accused over the coals prior to a trial and only pay lip service to the fact that the acts are “alleged”.  In France, this would be a violation of the law.

He argues that in both cultures, it used to be that in civil and common law alike that both components were seen as important to the legal process. However, while France has tended to depart from the rule of proof, the United States and England alike “lost sight, somewhat purposely, of the presumption of innocence as a shield against punishment, concerned that an expansion of the doctrine beyond the courtroom would undermine the fight against crime.” This was formalized by rulings in the United States Supreme Court in 1979, and it was a departure from the historical tradition.

He goes on to argue that this results in a society that treats people as guilty when they should be afforded protection, and it risks private vengeance being heaped upon potentially innocent parties. As such, he declares this as a violation of a “social contract” with the accused.

Therefore, it is probably time for the US to re-examine the historical facts and re-assess this principle in light of its historical and sociological significance. The American sense of justice and fairness is being violated by walking away from these historical roots.