A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is "innocent until proven guilty" a legal fiction?

Dear Straight Dope:

I heard it again last night on "Law and Order," the defendant's lawyer telling the D.A. that his client was an innocent man "until proven quilty". Isn't "innocent until proven guilty" a legal fiction trotted out for juries who (at least, in all the movies from the 50's) assumed that the defendant must be guilty of something or else (s)he wouldn't have been arrested and tried in court. Something like "lets all pretend that the defendant's is innocent and weigh the evidence accordingly." I ask not only because it seems this phrase has become mantra for every sleazebag lawyer (oxymoron?) but also for the right-wing yahoos who made a poster boy of the SELF-ADMITTED FELON Ollie North who was actually CONVICTED for his crimes until the courts discovered he had been given a get-out-jail-free card by Congress. What we need is a "Guilty, but unpunished" catagory.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, "No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law ..."

What this means, in plain terms, is that constitutionally you cannot be executed, imprisoned, or fined without the proper course of justice taking place. Due process, itself, is not defined in the constitution, but is universally recognized as meaning what we term as "a fair trial."

Going forward from there, a fair trial by a jury of one's peers requires that the jurors approach the case with the thought that the prosecution is required to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Since the trial begins with the prosecution not having introduced a single piece of evidence, it follows that a defendant must be innocent, until proven guilty.

This article shows you why you need to assume innocence (from News of the Weird, 26 Dec 1997): "Junius Wilson, written up in News of the Weird in 1993 as the state of North Carolina was apologizing for having wrongly accused him of rape, wrongly castrated him, and then institutionalized him for 67 years as incompetent when the only thing amiss was his inability to speak and hear, reached a settlement with the state in November. Wilson, whose age is somewhere between 89 and 100, will get free medical care, free housing in a cottage, and $114,000."

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