Contrary to what some assume, the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” also known as the “presumption of innocence,” is not explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution.
Though it is part of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a key document of the French Revolution, it took until 1895 for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that “the principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
Today, “innocent until proven guilty” is considered one of the fundamental principles of the American justice system and is often referred to in regard to pending criminal cases.
What is not sufficiently discussed is the definition of “proven guilty.”
From a legal perspective, the moment one is convicted of a crime, he is considered to have been proven guilty. But a new report throws more doubt on whether the same guidelines should apply from a moral perspective.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations — a project of the University of Michigan Law School — the U.S. saw a record number of exonerations in 2015, with nearly 40 percent of the cases involving individuals accused of participation in homicides who were later exonerated.
The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 — 1,733 cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.
In the past four years, the annual number of exonerations has more than doubled and there is now an average of nearly three exonerations a week.
While the American legal system is far better than those found in many other countries, it is a far cry from true justice.
America’s founding fathers considered the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers to be sacrosanct.
According to John Adams, “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like … hounds.”
Thomas Jefferson is said to have considered trial by jury “the only anchor ever imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Yet, on far too many occasion, juries have failed to produce fair verdicts. While in their minds they may be making a good faith effort to reach a decision that is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” inevitably, they will be influenced by their emotions and personal bias.
But jury error is only part of the story. Among the 149 exonerations that took place last year alone were convictions involving false confessions, as well as cases with guilty pleas by individuals who were actually innocent.
While it may seem difficult to believe, there have been numerous documented cases of individuals who were coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit. Others, threatened by the prospect of a death sentence or lengthy prison term, will agree to plead guilty even though in their hearts they know they are really innocent.
It is telling that according to the Torah, admission of guilt exists only in monetary disputes and not in criminal matters. For instance, there is no possibility for someone to be put to death based on a confession or a guilty plea. Nor is circumstantial evidence considered acceptable proof according to halachah.
What is important to bear in mind is that the long list of exonerations only hints at what likely is a much longer list of wrongful convictions that never came to light.
“The thing that is most troubling to me about these cases is it’s clear that for every innocent defendant who is convicted and later exonerated, there are several others who are convicted who are not exonerated because almost all the exonerations depend to a great extent on good fortune,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, told the Associated Press.
As Torah Jews we know that what the professor refers to as “good fortune” is actually hashgachah pratis. As we await the arrival of true justice on that glorious day when Hashem will reign over us — Alone — with kindness and compassion, let us recognize that in a great many cases, only the Ribbono shel Olam knows who is really guilty and who, in fact, is innocent.