The Supreme Court once defined the presumption of innocence as an assumption of innocence that is indulged in the absence of contrary evidence. If you have ever sat on a jury you know that the judge eventually reads the presumption of innocence instruction. The legal instruction can be lengthy and a bit confusing to the jury.
I personally like to give a jury an illustration when explaining the presumption of innocence. This illustration resonates best with parents, but hopefully we all understand the idea. Parents receive a phone call from the school’s dean explaining that their child started a fight. A parent wants to believe with his whole heart that it was really the OTHER kid who started it. The kid comes from school and explains his side of the story. Again, the kid says: “Mom, the other kid punched me first.” Still, the parent wants to believe that the child is telling the truth. Their child is really just a victim. This belief does not leave the parents until the hard evidence comes from the dean (if it does). This is the presumption of innocence. The parents stays on their kid’s side until proven wrong. Likewise, the jury must stay on the criminal defendant’s side until proven wrong/otherwise by the prosecution.
One maybe surprised to learn that the phrase “presumption of innocence” does not appear in the text of the Constitution. Of course, our judicial system has always used the presumption, but it was not read out loud. The idea was that the related concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” instruction was sufficient. In 1895, the Supreme Court ruled that the jury must actually be instructed on the presumption of innocence.
The presumption of innocence is not used throughout the criminal process. For example, the court does not use the presumption in deciding whether to set bail or release a person on his own recognizance. In those proceedings, the court must meet a lower threshold to keep the person awaiting trial. Keep in mind that the person is still presumed innocent even though he is awaiting trial. Unfortunately, a person does lose his liberty while in jail, but the courts believe that there must be some general public interest in holding the person behind bars for a limited time.
The most common argument I hear from general public is “why we should spend money prosecuting a defendant who OBVIOUSLY committed the crime.” Well, who would judge what is actually obvious and what isn’t.
But what about crime caught on tape from start to finish? Well, the presumption of innocence, among other procedures, is actually written into our laws. It is logical for us to follow the law when prosecuting someone, especially if we accuse the defendant of not following the law.
Further, even if the act is not in dispute the mental state can be. For example, if someone shoots and kills someone, the actions and facts are not in dispute. But the mental state can range from self defense to pure rage. The crime will change based on that mental states. The trial is often necessary to determine what the mental state was.
If you are still not convinced. Think about whether you prefer the system where you are presumed guilty and you have to prove your innocence. Most of us will find the concept foreign and wrong.