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Innocent or Not Innocent

You start presumed innocent.  This is true in every criminal case.  If the prosecution does not prove their allegations, beyond reasonable doubt, then the law requires a verdict of not guilty.  When this occurs, the status quo remains in place – innocence.

Does this mean that “not guilty” and “innocent” are the same thing?  While difficult comprehend, the answer to this fundamental question has not been plainly answered.  So let’s fix that now.

We need to start by acknowledging our failure to address the issue of context.  Words have different meanings to different people.  Take the word hammer standing alone.  Some people automatically hear a noun.  Some people automatically hear a verb.  Similarly, in a debate over the scope of our Second Amendment, the word “militia” means something vastly different depending on which side of the debate you stand.

Words also have different meanings to different people, in different places.  In a statistics class, the word “significant” means something very different than it does to a person sitting at their kitchen table figuring out how to make this month’s mortgage payment.  In science, something is statistically “significant” if a difference is unlikely due to random chance.  To the person trying to pay the mortgage, a “significant” amount of money may just mean more money than they have in the bank.

Words also have different meanings to different groups of people.  When words develop special significance to a group we call them terms of art.  Law is full of them.  It is part of the reason lawyers have jobs.  Someone needs to explain all the special meanings we have made up words.  Thus, words can have distinctly different meanings depending if are you are a member of the bar or patronizing a bar.

Outside a courtroom, the word “innocent” congers the notion of being free from moral wrong.  However, morality is not a verdict decided in a court of law.  At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we find a morally repugnant character – Ebenezer Scrooge.  Nevertheless, his greed and lack of humanity are not criminal.  Behavior only becomes criminal when a legislature makes a law prohibiting it.  While those things often overlap, they can be mutually exclusive. The danger is convicting a person accused of a crime based on your moral criteria, not the legal criteria.

Being presumed innocent is not a presumption of being moral.  It is an assumption that you didn’t violate law.  Innocent is being used here as a term of art.  It is actually means “not guilty,” seperate and apart from morality.  You start the trial not guilty, and unless the prosecution can prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt, then you remain not guilty.

Similarly, a not guilty verdict is also called an acquittal. The word is derived from the Latin “ad” meaning to, and “quitare” meaning set free. An acquittal literally means to be set free. In the criminal case, it means to be set from the charges. It’s definition has nothing to do moral purity.

Despite the language we use in the courtroom, a jury verdict is not about innocence (as most of us think of the word).  A jury is not presented with a choice of innocent or not innocent (moral or not moral). We merely lead juries to believe these are the choices before them by failing to explain the special meanings we give to ordinary language.