What Is the Presumption of Innocence?
In the American criminal justice system, a person is innocent until proven guilty. This principle is referred to as the presumption of innocence, allowing that any person accused of a crime is assumed not to have done anything wrong. More specifically, it means that the individual is considered not to have engaged in the conduct that led to the criminal charges.
The presumption of innocence holds throughout the entire criminal case, and it is enough to acquit the defendant of the charges. Unfortunately, because of negative media coverage of some crimes, the spread of misinformation through social media, and the social stigma attached to criminal accusations, even though a person is presumed innocent, society – or even jurors hearing the case – might not see it that way. External influences may cloud their thoughts and feelings towards an individual.
In any criminal case, a judge or jury cannot return a guilty verdict unless they are convinced that the accused committed the crime. Their decision must be based on a careful and impartial review of the evidence. The defendant does not have to prove their innocence; instead, the burden rests on the State to prove guilt.
The Burden of Proof and Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The burden of proof is the standard the State – by way of the prosecutor – must satisfy. This burden always rests on the State and never shifts to the defendant.
The standard in a criminal case is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence presented during trial must be sufficient to wipe away any doubt the judge or jury has concerning the defendant's guilt. If such is achieved, the trier of fact may return a guilty verdict. However, if any doubt rests in their minds that the accused committed the crime, they must find the defendant not guilty.
Proving Every Essential Element of the Offense
Elements of a crime are the specific behaviors involved. Each offense has its own elements, which are enumerated in Rhode Island's General Laws.
- Driving or otherwise operating a vehicle in this state;
- While under the influence of liquor, drugs, toluene, or controlled substances; or
- With a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more; or
- With the presence of any controlled substance in the blood
The State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that each of the elements was violated. For instance, the prosecutor must show that the defendant was driving or operating a vehicle and they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or had a BAC of 0.08% or higher or had drugs in their system. If the State proves that the defendant was driving but was not under the influence of alcohol, for example, the judge or jury must return a not guilty verdict. Likewise, if the State proves that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol but cannot prove that they were operating a vehicle, the judge or jury must find the defendant not guilty.
The Role of the Criminal Defense Attorney
If a person is presumed innocent and they do not have to prove their innocence, what role does a criminal defense lawyer play in a case? They work to cast doubt on the prosecutor's allegations and protect their client's rights.
Just because the State has evidence against the accused, that does not mean it is strong enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A criminal defense attorney points out the weaknesses in the evidence or unlawful conduct engaged in by law enforcement officials in obtaining said evidence to cast doubt in the minds of the judge or jury. Remember, if the trier of fact is not convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they cannot convict the defendant.