Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty…
People are still talking about this billboard, and they are mostly describing it as “sleazy” or “unethical” lawyer advertising. Is it “lowering the bar,” though? Non-criminal defense attorneys might think so – you know, the ones in the white-collar firms who would never take one of those cases…
It’s not unethical, though. It’s also not sleazy, although that’s in the eye of the beholder.
It is a true statement about the standard of proof in every criminal case in our country – Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt.
What Do We Mean When We Say, “Just Because You Did It Doesn’t Mean You’re Guilty?”
When the Founders insisted on including a Bill of Rights in our federal Constitution, they included the rights to a trial by jury and proof beyond any reasonable doubt any time a person is accused of a crime.
Is it better for ten innocent people to be convicted than for one guilty person to go free?
Or is it better for ten guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be sent to prison? Is it better for 100 guilty people to go free than for a single innocent person to be punished for a crime they did not commit?
Most people will agree that it is better for some amount of guilty people to go free than for a single innocent person to be punished, whether that number is ten or 100. But how do we ensure that we are not sending innocent people to jail?
What Does “Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt” Mean?
Our constitutional rights are designed to ensure that innocent people are not sent to prison (or fined or executed), and, arguably, the most important of these rights is the right to proof beyond any reasonable doubt when we are accused of a crime.
The best way to explain reasonable doubt to a jury is to explain how beyond any reasonable doubt relates to the other burdens of proof we use in America:
- A scintilla of evidence is a mere suspicion of a crime – a scintilla of evidence is not enough evidence to charge a person, much less convict them.
- Reasonable suspicion is enough evidence for a police officer to do a “Terry frisk” if they suspect you have a weapon, but it’s not enough evidence to go into your pockets or search your property. It’s not enough evidence to charge a person with a crime, much less convict them.
- Probable cause is enough evidence to charge a person with a crime, or for a police officer to search a person’s property. It’s enough evidence for a grand jury to indict a person –enough evidence to bring a person to trial, but it’s not enough to convict a person.
- A preponderance of the evidence is enough to find liability in a car wreck or most civil cases. It means that it’s more likely than not that a person committed the crime, or one side’s evidence weighs even slightly more than the other’s – 51%. Even if it is more likely than not that a person committed a crime, you must find them not guilty.
- Clear and convincing evidence is the standard of proof in SC to award punitive damages in a civil case or to terminate a person’s parental rights in the family court. The standard of proof to permanently take your children away from you – clear and convincing evidence – is not enough evidence to convict a person of a crime in our country.
- Beyond any reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom anywhere in the world – this is the standard of proof in every criminal case in our country, whether you are charged with speeding or murder because we must be sure before we take away a person’s freedom, put them in prison, and brand them as a criminal for the rest of their life.
Reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act. It’s a doubt for which you could give a reason.
For example, if the government’s case relies on an unreliable “jailhouse snitch” whom the government is essentially bribing for their testimony, that should create a reasonable doubt that causes you to hesitate to act.
When the government is trying to convict a person of a crime, but their proof falls short of “beyond any reasonable doubt,” the jurors must acquit that defendant and send them home.
Maybe that defendant did the crime, and maybe they didn’t, but they are not guilty either way.
Just Because You Didn’t Do It Doesn’t Mean You’re Innocent
The opposite is also true – just because you didn’t do it doesn’t mean you’re innocent.
When police officers or prosecutors lie and cheat to get a conviction, innocent people are convicted. When jurors don’t follow the beyond any reasonable doubt standard, innocent people are convicted. When defense attorneys don’t conduct an independent investigation or effectively challenge the State’s case, innocent people are convicted.
People are wrongfully convicted of crimes every day in the United States. Some are later corrected on appeal or in post-conviction relief (PCR) proceedings, but most are not.
Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty. If jurors, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, the media, and the public all understood this, maybe there would be fewer wrongful convictions.
Criminal Defense Lawyers in Columbia, SC, and Myrtle Beach, SC
Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty.
The criminal defense attorneys at the Thompson & Hiller Defense Firm focus exclusively on criminal defense cases in SC. We have obtained dismissals, pre-trial diversion resulting in dismissals, or acquittals following trial in hundreds of criminal cases, and we have a record of proven results.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC or if you think you may be under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or contact us through our website for a free initial consultation to find out if we can help.