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Burden of Proof: The Meaning of Innocent until Proven Guilty

Posted on in Criminal Defense

Wisconsin criminal defense attorney, Wisconsin defense lawyer, innocence, guiltyThe idea that a criminal defendant is “innocent until proven guilty” has been drilled into the American public for decades. The phrase appears in virtually any movie or TV show about the criminal justice system. However, this phrase is more than just a platitude or lip service to the rights of the accused. It has actual legal weight, and can be vitally important for the outcome of a criminal trial. At its heart, innocent until proven guilty is a recitation of which side has the burden of proof in a trial

The Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is a legal term for determining which side has to prove his or her case is correct. Innocent until proven guilty means that the prosecution is the side that has to bear the burden of proof. The prosecution must put forward affirmative evidence that shows the court that the defendant is guilty in order to have the defendant convicted. The lack of evidence absolving the defendant of guilt is not enough.

To better understand this, imagine the opposite world. Suppose defendants were “guilty until proven innocent.” That would mean that the defendant's side in the trial would need to show that the defendant did not commit the crime. The defendant would need to produce DNA evidence or witnesses or some other positive thing that showed he or she did not do it. While these types of evidence are often produced by defendants regardless, they are not, strictly speaking, necessary in a world where it is the prosecution's job to prove the defendant guilty rather than the defendant's job to prove him or herself innocent. Where the burden rests is particularly important in criminal cases because the prosecution has a heightened standard for proving its case.

Different Standards

The evidentiary standard in the case is at least as important as who has the burden of proof. In criminal cases the prosecution must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This distinguishes criminal cases from civil cases, which only need to be proved by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Beyond a reasonable doubt is a higher standard that requires more evidence proving the defendant guilty than a preponderance of the evidence would. These sorts of standards are often expressed in terms of percent likelihood. The preponderance of the evidence is usually described as meaning that the evidence shows something to be more likely than not to be true, a 51 percent standard. Beyond a reasonable doubt is higher. It does not mean beyond all doubt, but it is usually expressed as likelihood around 90 percent.

If you have recently been charged with a crime, it is important to reach out to an experienced Milwaukee defense attorney as quickly as possible. An experienced defense attorney can help you build your case and defend your rights.

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