The term acquit means to find someone legally not guilty of the criminal charges brought against them in a criminal trial. It is a very specific legal term, because while it means that the individual is not convicted of the charges, it is not a factual finding of innocence. In fact, a criminal defendant is never found “innocent” in the course of a standard criminal trial. Some members of the public misunderstand this concept and believe that it is based on the guilt or innocence of an accused, but it is based on two related concepts in the American criminal justice system: the burden of proof and reasonable doubt.
Burden of Proof & Reasonable Doubt
The United States has what is known as an adversarial criminal justice system. The state and the accused are on opposite sides of the dispute. Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the state, as the party bringing the action, to demonstrate that the accused engaged in criminal activity. If the state cannot meet the burden of proof, then the factual guilt or innocence of a defendant are unimportant; the defendant cannot be convicted of the crime. To meet the burden of proof, the state must establish that a defendant’s actions met all of the elements of whatever crime has been charged. There are some instances where the burden of proof shifts from the prosecution to the defendant. When a defendant alleges an affirmative defense, the defense may then be responsible for proving some of the elements of that defense. An affirmative defense occurs when the defendant admits that he or she engaged in the behavior, but that the actions were not criminal. Well-known affirmative defenses include insanity and self-defense.
In the United States, the burden of proof in a criminal trial is reasonable doubt. The courts have resisted efforts to quantify what a reasonable doubt means, but it considered the highest burden of proof in the American legal system. Would a reasonable person have any doubts about the defendant’s guilt? If the answer to that inquiry is yes, then the defendant should be acquitted of the underlying offense, even if the evidence suggests that he or she is guilty of the crime charged.