The term “not guilty” has a special meaning in the criminal justice system that differs from its meaning in everyday language. In everyday speech, describing a person as not guilty of an action implies that he or she is innocent of that behavior. However, in legal terms, the usage of the words “not guilty” do not imply innocence, but mean that the state was unable to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a defendant committed a crime. Defendants who are, indeed, factually guilty, may be found not guilty of a crime. However, the presumption of innocence in the United States means that the mere fact that a defendant was charged with a crime should not be considered evidence that he or she committed that crime.
Presumption of Innocence
The presumption of innocence plays a tremendous role in the American criminal justice system. It means that a defendant does not have to provide any evidence in a criminal trial; the burden is entirely on the state to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. If the state is unable to meet this burden of proof, then the defendant will be acquitted or found not guilty of the crime.
Furthermore, the state faces a significant burden of proof in a criminal trial. In civil trials, the standard is generally the preponderance of the evidence. The preponderance of the evidence simply means that the factfinder can find for the party who was more convincing at trial. However, criminal trials generally have higher stakes than civil trials. Because the results of a criminal trial can lead to the loss of liberty, the standard of proof in a criminal trial is beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that if a reasonable person could still have doubts about a defendant’s guilt, then the judge or jury is supposed to find a defendant not guilty.