Innocent Until

PRESUMED INNOCENT?: Widely misunderstood concept needing correction, explanation

Question: Ever hear, “In America you’re innocent until proven guilty!” “In America, you enjoy a presumption of innocence” from lawyers seeking to deflect a client’s appearance of guilt from newscasters and television talking heads.

Sure you have. Every time Donald Trump gets indicted.

But if innocent until proven guilty, why was the person arrested in the first place?

If innocent until proven guilty, why are some persons in jail as they await trial?


Answer: Because One is NOT Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty!

One is presumed innocent only during one’s actual courtroom trial.


Always (!!), The Wolf’s aim is to provoke thought, to educate. A misconception that has nettled The Wolf for years is the pronouncement, fostered by lawyers and other supposedly knowledgeable types that so and so charged with a crime, arrested, slapped in handcuffs, otherwise deprived of liberty, is “innocent until proven guilty.”


As noted, if presumed innocent until proven guilty, the person wouldn’t have been arrested! Wouldn’t have been handcuffed, marched to jail, held in jail, deprived of liberty.


So, what’s the deal? If myth, inaccurate, not true, why do we so often hear that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty?

Because… Well. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Makes the American legal system sound good. Reassures Joe/Jane law-abiding citizen that his/her liberty won’t easily be lost in the event he/she ever gets caught up in an arrest situation.

However, obviously, if folk walked around possessed of a protective halo of innocent until proven guilty, duh-h, NO ONE WOULD EVER BE ARRESTED!


Btw. The Wolf is a licensed New York lawyer, retired status, once a federal prosecutor. So has some knowledge in this area.


Here’s the deal. “Innocent until proven guilty,” cornerstone of American criminal trial proceedings, is a construct that comes into play, that becomes something with consequence only during actual trial of a criminal defendant. Not before.

In other words, following arrest, handcuffing, booking, arraignment (advisement of charges), possibly release on bail, possibly incarceration pending trial, far down the road (months?, over a year?), when and IF the defendant enters a courtroom to commence trial of his/her case before judge (sometimes only a judge) or judge and jury, INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY FINALLY COMES INTO PLAY.

As a fiction!—a made up construct of the law—, designed to guide introduction, evaluation of evidence produced at the time of trial in a courtroom before judge/jury.

When an actual courtroom trial begins, the fiction/construct/notion innocent until proven guilty is trotted out. The presiding judge understands, the jury is instructed: prosecution is charged with introducing evidence that will persuade beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of crimes charged. Until that lofty burden is met, the defendant is to be presumed innocent.

From arrest to ultimate finding of guilt, innocence of defendant, innocent until proven guilty comes into play, exists only at the trial/courtroom phase of proceedings.


NOTE: Defendants in American criminal jurisprudence do not have to prove innocence.

Prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Meaning when both prosecution and defense have produced their evidence, made their arguments, there is articulable reason to believe the defendant didn’t commit the crime(s) charged.

NOTE! One sometimes hears, “the defendant was proven innocent.” No! Acquittal of crime charged (being found not guilty) does not mean innocence of the defendant has been proven or established (!!). It just means the prosecution wasn’t able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defendant may actually be guilty.



If believed to be innocent until proven guilty, someone reasonably believed to have stolen something, killed someone, run a red light, committed any of many indiscretions/infractions for which liberty may be intruded upon—say, a child [your child!] suspected of raiding the cookie jar—would skip about unquestioned and unimpeded until some far off day in a courtroom when guilt was proven.

But no. Mere good faith belief that someone committed a crime—cop, say, responds to report of a burglary and someone is the only person on the scene; or someone is pointed out or accused (possibly by someone who’s lying)—… That person is likely to be arrested. He/she is not presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In the instance of the child and cookie jar, could be that all the proof needed is, “I know you, you little rascal. You’ve done it before.”


Some may recall the instance of a White ex-marine putting a chokehold on a mentally ill Black dude who was harassing folk on a NYC subway, and the Black man died as a result.

Many considered the ex-marine a good Samaritan and objected to his arrest.

If presumed innocent until proven guilty, the ex-marine wouldn’t have been arrested.

Ultimately, the ex-marine will “have his day in court.” Meaning, assuming he doesn’t take a plea deal beforehand—bargain between defense and prosecution in lieu of trial and exposure to maximum crimes charged and possible punishment—, that day/time in court before judge or jury when he will actually be tried.

Then and only then will he be presumed innocent, as both prosecution and defense try the case.


That’s about all you need to know on this topic.

Go forth armed with more knowledge!


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