The History of the Presumption of Innocence
It is better that 5, 10, 20, or 100 guilty men go free than for one innocent man to be put to death. This prinicple is embodied in the presumption of innocence. In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision in the case Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432; 15 S. Ct. 394, traced the presumption of innocence, past England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, and, at least according to Greenleaf, to Deuteronomy. [also, Alexander Volokh wrote a law review article on the issue, available free here.]The Coffin case stands for the proposition that at the request of a defendant, a court must not only instruct on the prosecution's burden of proof--that a defendant cannot be convicted unless the government has proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--but also must instruct on the presumption of innocence--by informing the jury that a defendant is presumed innocent. The Court stated,
The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.
In tracing the presumption of innocence, the Court goes on to state:
It is stated as unquestioned in the text-books, and has been referred to as a matter of course in the decisions of this court and in the courts of the several States. See Taylor on Evidence, vol. 1, c. 5, 126, 127; Wills on Circumstantial Evidence, c. 5, 91; Best on Presumptions, part 2, c. 1, 63, 64; c. 3, 31-58; Greenleaf on Evidence, part 5, § § 29, &c.; 11 Criminal Law Magazine, 3; Wharton on Evidence, § 1244; Phillips on Evidence, Cowen & Hill's Notes, vol. 2, p. 289; Lilienthal v. United States, 97 U.S. 237; Hopt v. Utah, 120 U.S. 430; Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 295, 320; State v. Bartlett, 43 N.H. 224; Alexander v. People, 96 Illinois, 96; People v. Fairchild, 48 Michigan, 31; People v. Millard, 53 Michigan, 63; Commonwealth v. Whittaker, 131 Mass. 224; Blake v. State, 3 Tex. App. 581; Wharton v. State, 73 Alabama, 366; State v. Tibbetts, 35 Maine, 81; Moorer v. State, 44 Alabama, 15.
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