Have you noticed how easy it is to get someone into trouble just by accusing him or her of doing something unsavory? This is not good for a whole host of reasons. For starters, our legal system is built on the doctrine of the presumption of innocence. This is to say that those accused of crimes are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty.
Presumption of innocence, in a legal sense, technically applies only to criminal law. A similar principle exists in civil law. Yet our entire sense of justice insists that presumption of innocence be applied across all aspects of society. Indeed, presumption of innocence is critical to maintaining a civil society.
More About Presumption of Innocence
Presumption of innocence is a doctrine that goes back hundreds of years. It is neither unique to the U.S. justice system nor birthed here. However, we were one of the first countries in the modern era to codify presumption of innocence in our constitution.
The document itself dictates that criminal defendants are assumed to be innocent. It is up to prosecutors to provide compelling evidence that proves a defendant's guilt. If guilt is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant must be acquitted.
Unfortunately, far too many people see things backwards. They assume that criminal defense attorneys like Salt Lake City's Anita Dickinson have the responsibility of proving a defendant's innocence. Such thinking is flat-out false.
Dickinson explains that her job as a defense attorney is twofold. First, it is her responsibility to ensure a defendant's rights are respected and maintained throughout all legal proceedings. Second, she is tasked with forcing prosecutors to prove their case.
Accusations Without Proof Are Unmerited
Understanding the role of the defense attorney leads us to the main point of this post: why presumption of innocence is critical to civil society. This can be best explained by exploring the simple concept of accusations without proof.
If a person is accused of a crime for which there is no proof of guilt, such accusations are without merit. For example, a complete stranger could accuse you of assault. Accusations alone are not enough to land you in jail. If the accuser cannot provide sufficient evidence proving your guilt, his or her accusations carry no weight.
Why is this important? Because requiring proof to back up charges prevents those in power from using the legal system as a weapon. Prosecutors must have strong evidence to go to court, thus making it very difficult for them to level charges they cannot support with proof.
Presumption of Guilt Is Dangerous
Imagine what our legal system would look like if presumption of guilt was the norm. Presumption of guilt is a dangerous thing as evidenced by that small number of countries with legal systems based on it. Under those systems, prosecutors can fabricate all sorts of charges at a whim. They can do so knowing that it is almost impossible for a defendant to prove his or her innocence.
Presumption of guilt is what makes it so easy in this country to ruin someone's career simply by accusing him/her of doing something that is socially unacceptable. We have all seen instances of high profile individuals being completely destroyed by accusations that were never proved.
If it is easy to ruin someone's life and career in the court of public opinion by assuming guilt, it would be just as easy to destroy someone in criminal court without presumption of innocence. Thankfully, presumption of innocence is a legal standard in this country. If it were not, our society would be far from civil.