Tag: Coffin v. United States

Blast From the Past: The History of the Presumption of Innocence

From 2003: It is better than 5, 10, 20, or 100 guilty men go free than for one innocent man to be put to death. This principle 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. 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.

The opinion goes on to trace the history of the presumption of innocence:[More...]

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