You are Presumed Innocent

It’s In your court

Judge Steve Halsey
Wright County District Court

Among the fundamental rights we all have as U.S. citizens is the presumption of innocence. Whether a citizen gets a speeding ticket, is charged with DWI, or is indicted for murder, the presumption of innocence remains throughout the entire court process, including any appeals if the citizen is convicted by a judge or jury. Unlike the right to counsel or reasonable bail, the presumption of innocence is not in the U.S. or Minnesota Constitutions. It is a part of the common law which American jurisprudence has followed from the British tradition.

Oft-quoted is British jurist and law commentator Sir William Blackstone who put it this way back in 1765: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 1895 traced the roots of the presumption of innocence to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament and to Roman law. It is unquestioned that this presumption in favor of the defendant has been a principle of Western common law for hundreds of years.

Given the media attention that often surrounds serious crimes, it is not surprising that the presumption of innocence may be questioned by some citizens. (During jury selection, jurors sometimes admit that they feel the defendant must be guilty of something or he would not be on trial.) However, 312 convicted felons have been released; some after many years in prison, as a result of DNA testing that exonerated them. The Innocence Project ( reports the following statistics:

The common themes that run through these cases—from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel—cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system.

•    Eighteen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release.

•    The average sentence served by DNA exonerees has been 13.6 years.

•    About 70 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing are people of color.

•    In almost 50 percent of DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing.

Exonerations have been won in 35 states and Washington D.C.

In Minnesota in 2001, a man convicted of rape in 1985 was exonerated by DNA testing after the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office began a systematic review of pre-1995 convictions to determine if DNA testing would have affected the outcome. The Innocence Project states:

Those exonerated by DNA testing aren’t the only people who have been wrongfully convicted in recent decades. For every case that involves DNA, there are thousands that do not.

Only a fraction of criminal cases involve biological evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing, and even when such evidence exists, it is often lost or destroyed after a conviction. Since they don’t have access to a definitive test like DNA, many wrongfully convicted people have a slim chance of ever proving their innocence.

Why the presumption of innocence? Consider if you were charged with a serious crime that occurred in a place and at a time that you could not have possibly been present. If your only alibi is that you were home by yourself watching Netflix, with no one to vouch for your presence there, how could you possibly prove your innocence if you had to? You would have great difficulty proving that you were not at the crime scene and did not commit the crime.

Question: What does a defendant have to prove in a criminal case?

Answer: Nothing.

The prosecution has the burden of proving a criminal defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution cannot argue that the jury must “decide which story to believe,” because the defendant does not have to convince the jury of any story. The Defendant has a Constitutional right to remain silent, cannot be compelled to testify, and the prosecutor cannot comment to the jury about the defendant’s failure to testify. Prosecutors are prohibited from attacking the presumption of innocence. Prosecutors, for example, cannot argue to the jury that the presumption of innocence is only for the truly innocent and is not a shield for the guilty. All of these rules are necessary to insure that a person’s presumption is fully protected. The presumption of innocence is one of the fundamental rights which we all enjoy as members of a democratic society governed by law.

Remember: It’s in your court!

—Submitted by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo.


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