Why Are We Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

One of the central ideas of American criminal law is the Presumption of Innocence. Despite what you may think, this presumption is no different in Texas. It’s a very important concept and its origins go far back. It puts the burden of proof on the accuser, not the denier. It’s an important difference and one that affects our entire society. It can’t be given only to the people we like.

Often you’ll hear people say “we all know he’s guilty, so why bother even having a trial?” That view weakens our view of jury trials to administer justice. It also ignores that fact that one day it may be you or someone in your family in that seat and in the cross hairs. Then you’ll hear… Where are my rights?

So, why are we always told we’re innocent until proven guilty?

The presumption of innocence acts as a safeguard protection of our legal system. In our criminal justice system we have jury trials as the default. The reason we’re presumed innocent is because the government, through the prosecutor (county attorney or district attorney), has to prove their case against you, beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden never leaves the government. The defense doesn’t have to prove ANYTHING at all.

Why doesn’t the defense have to prove anything?

Well, the easiest way to explain it is that it’s impossible to prove a negative. A negative in the criminal law context would be trying to prove that something DID NOT happen. Why do I say it’s impossible to prove a negative? Let’s use an example of someone accused of shoplifting or theft from a store and there is no presumption of innocence.

Let’s say that the person is accused of taking makeup and pants from the store. After the store does the daily inventory, it finds that makeup and pants are missing and that you were the only customer in the store that day. The police are called, and you’re arrested for theft or shoplifting. Now you’re at trial and you are not presumed innocent. In fact, you now have to prove that you did not take the makeup and pants. How can you do this? The answer is that you can’t. Aside from an outright alibi (you weren’t in the store) you could never produce enough evidence to prove that you DIDN’T take the items.

You can’t prove this because there may have been employees in the store, not just that you were the only customer. In addition, there may be no evidence that there were pants or makeup in the store at all. What if there weren’t video surveillance cameras in the store following your every move? If you’re not presumed innocent, then you could be accused of anything, and you would rarely be able to provide proof that you didn’t do something. Not only that, but don’t forget that you have the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination.

The Takeaway

The presumption of innocence exists in our legal system to protect your rights. That is why we are innocent until proven guilty. The presumption is something that must be pulled off you like a protective veil. The only way for it to be pulled off is when the prosecutor produces a sufficient amount of evidence to a jury to find you guilty. How much evidence? Enough evidence to convince them beyond a reasonable doubt.

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