The Meaning of a Not Guilty Verdict

A handy little primer, followed by some thoughts on the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence.

A Verdict of Not Guilty Includes:

  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury find that the defendant is absolutely 100% innocent.
  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury, cannot be absolutely sure that the defendant is innocent.
  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury are confident that the defendant is innocent.
  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury believe that the defendant is probably innocent. [More...]

  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury are not really sure one way or the other if the defendant is guilty or innocent.
  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury believe it is more likely than not that the defendant is guilty.
  • Based upon the evidence presented, we the Jury believe that the defendant is probably guilty.
  • We the Jury believe that the defendant is guilty but the evidence falls a little short and we cannot find that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal trials should not be equated with a search for the truth. They are merely a process for the testing of evidence: Can the state prove the charges against a defendant by proof beyond a reasonable doubt? As former Chief Judge Richard Matsch wrote in an opinion granting separate trials for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols:

Trials, like all human events, are unpredictable. All of the participants interact in a public process, which, in essence, is an historical inquiry into past events to determine whether the prosecution has proved the defendants guilty of the crimes charged within the rules of evidence and the applicable law.

The criminal justice system was not designed to solve all of society's ills. The Bill of Rights was designed to provide protection to the accused when the Government exercises its awesome power and charges that individual with a crime.

In the 1895 Supreme Court decision, Coffin v. United States, the Court explained:

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.

The presumption of innocence goes back well before the United States, to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. It has even been traced to Deuteronomy. The ancient code of Rome stated:

"Let all accusers understand that they are not to prefer charges unless they can be proven by proper witnesses or by conclusive documents, or by circumstantial evidence which amounts to indubitable proof and is clearer than day." Code, L. IV, T. XX, 1, 1. 25.

...In all cases of doubt, the most merciful construction of facts should be preferred." Dig. L. L, Tit. XVII, 1. 56.

..."In criminal cases the milder construction shall always be preserved." Dig. L. L, Tit. XVII, 1. 155, s. 2.

The Supreme Court in Coffin also cited Lord Gilles in McKinley's Case (1817), 33 St.Tr. 275, 506,

I conceive that this presumption is to be found in every code of law which has reason, and religion, and humanity, for a foundation. It is a maxim which ought to be inscribed in indelible characters in the heart of every judge and juryman...To overturn this, there must be legal evidence of guilt, carrying home a decree of conviction short only of absolute certainty."

As Sir William Blackstone said:

[T]he law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." 2 Bl.Com. c. 27, margin p. 358 ad finem.

Ours may not be a perfect system, as evidenced most clearly by the number of persons in recent years determined to have been wrongfully convicted. But it's a very good one, and far better than those used by other countries.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Excellent (5.00 / 4) (#1)
    by oculus on Tue Jul 05, 2011 at 10:44:25 PM EST

    Beautifully laid out, Jeralyn (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by gyrfalcon on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 12:04:03 AM EST
    Now if we could only get prosecutors to resist the impulse to overcharge...

    Thanks to all of you (5.00 / 6) (#5)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 12:47:00 AM EST
    for reading it and your comments.  If even a few people summoned for jury duty happen to come across it before they go, I'll be happy.

    The louder this new brand of crazed zealots on cable TV shriek, the more they embarrass themselves. I doubt anyone with a brain makes it through more than 10 minutes of their rants without shaking their head in disbelief and wondering what planet they descended from.  

    It would be nice to believe (none / 0) (#8)
    by scribe on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 08:16:36 AM EST
    that the ordinary person watching a few minutes of these cable clowns would, in fact, shake their head and turn away.  But, sadly, the fact seems to be more along the lines that these cable clowns would not be on cable TV for literally years  (I think Nancy Grace is well past 5 years on this current gig) because they draw audiences of regular viewers.

    That those viewers are deluded mouth-breathers is of no importance - they are there.  And mouth-breathers make admirable members of lynch mobs.  Which is what Grace and her ilk are trying to inspire, innocence, precedent and history be damned.


    Ironic that their very rabble rousing (none / 0) (#10)
    by ruffian on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 08:48:23 AM EST
    is what makes the story so popular - and hence any money made in books etc, which they will also rail against, will be directly attributable to their 'advertising'.

    I am also in complete disbelief of the 'we just want justice for  caylee' crowd, who are content to ignore the sufferings of thousands of abused children that cannot be protected by the state due to lack of social services, not to mention the homeless kids a mile away from the courthouse that cannot get fed in a public park because of city ordinances. Take that energy and do some good with it.


    But Where's the Justice for Caylee ? (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by ScottW714 on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 09:00:56 AM EST
    I swear I have heard this at least 20 times as a reason why the verdict should have been guilty.

    This morning the male prosecutor said on the Today show that he really felt that the pictures of the dead baby would get him a conviction.

    I need to repeat that, he though the graphic pics of a dead baby were enough to get a conviction.

    This trial was a learning experience.  I see defense teams on TV objecting to stuff like graphic pics, and I always thought, this is BS, who would convict on that ?  What idiot would be swayed by that ?  

    Now I know, a good portion of the population can't be bothered with facts and evidence when's there's a dead baby needing justice.  

    I also have a better understanding how innocent people get found guilty.  Seems like the more heinous the crime, the better odds someone, especially a non-likable person, will answer for it, regardless.

    It's put a lot of things into perspective.  My fellow American's, not all, but way too many, are needy creatures that will sleep better knowing someone is answering for the crime, even if there's a good chance they didn't do it.  It's frightening to say the least.

    Thank you, Jeralyn (none / 0) (#2)
    by cymro on Tue Jul 05, 2011 at 11:25:36 PM EST
    This should be required reading for all TalkLeft posters. Civics students, too.

    Also, cable TV shouters and pundits would benefit (none / 0) (#19)
    by jawbone on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 03:20:12 PM EST
    from reviewing the basics of our legal system.

    I didn't pay much attention to the trial, but I did catch that the prosecution was using an unproven and untried much in trials theory of odor indicating the presence of corpses (or something like that).  The bit I caught pointed out the defense had pretty well demolished that bit of "evidence."

    But in no way could I judge what was the correct verdict. Now, maybe some of the legal analysts got some behind the scenes leaks of evidence which was inadmissable, or something.

    Or, they needed to take a stand to present gripping TV.


    Thanks Jeralyn (none / 0) (#4)
    by Stellaaa on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 12:17:31 AM EST
    Can we nail this on the front door of the internet and every tv?  Why do we not get it?  

    Yup. See my earlier comment (none / 0) (#6)
    by oldpro on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 02:17:49 AM EST
    in "So many ignorant..." as a juror on 4 juries.

    Great comment (none / 0) (#7)
    by Rojas on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 08:08:57 AM EST
    and thank you for your service.

    There is a juror I have always admired. As an American spectacle, Waco in 93 has no peers. Sarah Bain, a retied Texas school teacher served as forewoman on that jury. A jury that served it's duty only to have it's verdict dismissed. First, by the trial judge and the press. She spoke truth to power.

    On a more personal note: I cannot explain the honor and responsibility I felt when I was chosen to serve on this jury. It was the most intense forty-eight days (my thoughts did not take a break on weekends and holidays!) of my life. If justice is served in the end, I and my fellow jurors did our duty. It is now in the Court's hands to assure that our intentions are not belied.

    interesting "beyond a reasonable doubt" (none / 0) (#9)
    by seabos84 on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 08:43:21 AM EST
    can be broken down into 8 different, CLEAR, parts - AND

    in my life experience,

    a significant % of those who do NOT get "beyond a reasonable doubt" will also NOT get

    8 different, CLEAR, parts !

    oh well, you tried and you did a great job!

    (o.k. droolers - BACK to the Lost American Talented NASCAR NBA Surviving Dancing Star - look away!)


    It's not just our own home-grown (none / 0) (#12)
    by brodie on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 09:16:31 AM EST
    ignorant types, the mob outside the courthouse door, and the shrieking Nancy Graces on cable who need a reminder of what our legal system is supposed to be about.

    Even someone as smart and sensible and normally level-headed as Piers Morgan, who's spent a good deal of time in this country and who doesn't strike me as a wingnut, was outraged by the verdict, and didn't seem to understand that our criminal system isn't set up to discover the Truth or render Justice to the victim -- as Perf Alan Dershowitz neatly tried to explain to him (and the clueless Marsha Clark) last night.  

    Or perhaps Piers thought it better for his own career prospects at CNN to pretend to be on the side of the outraged public.

    I'd go with this: (5.00 / 0) (#14)
    by ruffian on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 10:37:36 AM EST
    Or perhaps Piers thought it better for his own career prospects at CNN to pretend to be on the side of the outraged public.

    Nothing sells in this country like manufactured outrage.


    I saw a talking (none / 0) (#13)
    by Ga6thDem on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 10:01:38 AM EST
    head last night saying that "prosecutors search for the truth" and I couldn,t believe it. It seems to me that the prosecutors job is to get a conviction because a lot of cases would never even come to trial otherwise. Just my humble opinion anyway

    Great post Jeralyn (none / 0) (#16)
    by Slado on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 11:18:40 AM EST
    It's obvious that this women is guilty of being a bad mother and probably a bad person.  Could she have killed that little girl.  Of course.  Did she probably do it?  Yep.   Did she for sure do it?  No.

    This jury did the right thing in putting aside the reality that this was an unfit mother who covered up a horrible incident and focused on what the question was.  Did she for sure intentionally murder her daughter?

    In their minds they couldn't be sure she did so she is not guilty.

    People seem to forget that being a bad or damaged person doesn't mean you should go to jail.

    Insults and (none / 0) (#17)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 12:08:46 PM EST
    Mis-statements will be deleted.  Repeat violators will be banned. If you are itching for an emotional rant, take it to HLN or similar site

    Great post (none / 0) (#18)
    by Democratic Cat on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 01:32:48 PM EST
    Thanks Jeralyn, very informative and the best post I have read anywhere on this topic. Posts like this are why I keep coming back to TalkLeft.

    What a wonderful post (none / 0) (#20)
    by loveed on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 05:25:04 PM EST
    presumption of innocence before being criminally
    charged would be nice.
      The police never should have charged Kasey. They should  have gotten a psych. evaluation. Right after they left universal studio, or the nanny apartment. She obviously needed help.


    Ten to one? (none / 0) (#21)
    by diogenes on Wed Jul 06, 2011 at 07:59:04 PM EST
    "As Sir William Blackstone said:

        [T]he law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." 2 Bl.Com. c. 27, margin p. 358 ad finem."

    If the jury received the case this way: "If you look eleven cases with the identical facts, do you believe that one of the eleven would be innocent", I wonder what they would have responded.

    Great post! Thanks (none / 0) (#22)
    by Madeline on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 12:16:56 PM EST
    I'm keeping this in my education file. :-)