Like the term “not guilty,” the term “guilty” has a special meaning in the criminal justice system that is similar to, but somewhat different from, its usage in everyday language. In everyday speech, describing a person as guilty of an action means that you have the belief that he or she committed that action. It is a term that people apply somewhat carelessly and can reflect the belief of the speaker more than the actions of the person being described. In the legal sense, the word is far more precise. The term guilty means that a fact finder, which can be a judge or a jury, determined that the defendant was guilty of the action, beyond a reasonable doubt. This finding, in turn, implies that the state met its burden of proof and established that a defendant committed a crime and that the proof supplied was sufficient to erase any doubts or questions that a reasonable person would have had about a defendant’s guilt.
However, it is important to keep in mind some of the harsh realities of the modern American criminal justice system when examining guilty findings. Competent legal representation is extremely expensive, and, while criminal defendants who are indigent are entitled to appointed counsel, both public defenders appointed private counsel often lack adequate resources to prepare a defense for their clients. Defendants who are charged with serious offenses may face extremely long prison sentences and be intimidated by their involvement in the criminal justice system, which can lead them to seek plea bargains, even if the state does not have enough evidence against them to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no question that some of these defendants are factually innocent of the crime charged, but accepting a plea bargain requires a defendant to either enter a guilty plea or to plead “no contest” or “nolo contendere” to the charges, supporting a finding of guilt.