Daily Archives: August 27, 2008

Just a little guilty

Due to unforeseen commitments, I’ve missed out on a great discussion in the blawgosphere between Scott, Scott, KFPL, Jr., Scott again and then KFPL, Jr. again on the presumption of innocence, actual innocence and not guilt and whether juries should be given that third option of finding a defendant “innocent”.

The gist is this: a defendant, found guilty by a jury, has his conviction overturned on appeal on grounds of insufficiency of evidence. Does he have a right to compensation under the wrongful conviction statutes? If not, why not?

I’ve written about this before and I think it comes down to the distinction between factually innocent and legally innocent. Compensation statutes are geared more toward (and public support of such statutes is based on) factual innocence. Legal innocence (which may very well be the same – and as Scott argues, and I agree, is the same), to the minds of the legislators, is something different.

This distinction places a tinge of guilt on the “legally” innocent: He’s guilty, but they couldn’t prove it.

Which, if you think about it, is exactly the same as the presumption of innocence. He’s not guilty until he’s found guilty. Some lawyers like to ask that question of prospective jurors: “If you were to vote today, how would you vote?” The correct answer, of course, is not guilty, because there has been no evidence presented of guilt.

But that’s perhaps where the problem lies. That we, as lawyers, create and perpetuate these two worlds, where factual innocence and legal innocence are two separate and distinct beasts. That we revere factual innocence and look upon legal innocence as an acceptable alternative.

They aren’t – and shouldn’t be – different. Innocence means just that. Innocent. Whether it is because the state couldn’t prove that you were guilty or because, as all-seeing superbeings we “know” that you weren’t guilty.

The second, as you can see, is an impossible scenario. No one truly “knows”, unless you were there (and even then, given the eyewitness ID failures, it’s hard to believe that someone will always “know”). Requiring someone to show that they are factually innocent, is in most cases, like asking someone to prove that God doesn’t exist. You simply can’t prove that negative.

Indeed, the bulk of scientific evidence and theories is based on hypothesis. How little of it is actually proven? Has anyone actually seen a black hole? Yet we know they exist.

Both physics and astronomy are sciences. So is the law.

Being found not guilty is the same as being found innocent. Let’s not confuse the issue further.