What is presumption of innocence ?
A principle that requires the government to prove the guilt of a
criminal defendant and relieves the defendant of any burden to
prove his or her innocence.
The presumption of innocence, an ancient tenet of criminal law,
is actually a misnomer. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the
presumption of the innocence of a criminal defendant is best
described as an assumption of innocence that is indulged in the
absence of contrary evidence (Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478,
98 S. Ct. 1930, 56 L. Ed. 2d 468 ). It is not considered
evidence of the defendant's innocence, and it does not require
that a mandatory inference favorable to the defendant be drawn
from any facts in evidence.
In practice the presumption of innocence is animated by the
requirement that the government prove the charges against the
defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. This due process
requirement, a fundamental tenet of criminal law, is contained
in statutes and judicial opinions. The requirement that a person
suspected of a crime be presumed innocent also is mandated in
statutes and court opinions. The two principles go together, but
they can be separated.
The Supreme Court has ruled that, under some circumstances, a
court should issue jury instructions on the presumption of
innocence in addition to instructions on the requirement of
proof beyond a reasonable doubt (Taylor v. Kentucky). A
presumption of innocence instruction may be required if the jury
is in danger of convicting the defendant on the basis of
extraneous considerations rather than the facts of the case.
The presumption of innocence principle supports the practice of
releasing criminal defendants from jail prior to trial. However,
the government may detain some criminal defendants without bail
through the end of trial. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution states that excessive bail shall not be required,
but it is widely accepted that governments have the right to
detain through trial a defendant of a serious crime who is a
flight risk or poses a danger to the public. In such cases the
presumption of innocence is largely theoretical.
Aside from the related requirement of proof beyond a reasonable
doubt, the presumption of innocence is largely symbolic. The
reality is that no defendant would face trial unless somebody —
the crime victim, the prosecutor, a police officer — believed
that the defendant was guilty of a crime. After the government
has presented enough evidence to constitute probable cause to
believe that the defendant has committed a crime, the accused
need not be treated as if he or she was innocent of a crime, and
the defendant may be jailed with the approval of the court.
Nevertheless, the presumption of innocence is essential to the
criminal process. The mere mention of the phrase presumed
innocent keeps judges and juries focused on the ultimate issue
at hand in a criminal case: whether the prosecution has proven
beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the
alleged acts. The people of the United States have rejected the
alternative to a presumption of innocence — a presumption of
guilt — as being inquisitorial and contrary to the principles of
a free society.