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Innocent vs. Not Guilty

A comment I have heard often goes something like this:

“Just because the jury found the defendant ‘not guilty’ does not mean he is ‘innocent’. It just means the prosecutors couldn’t make their case.”

I usually get this comment from anti-Enron bashers who are certain they know that a person is guilty of a crime even though he was acquitted at trial. Let me clear this up.

In the legal context, a defendant who is determined to be “not guilty” is, in fact, “innocent”.

In the American justice system, defendants are presumed innocent — this means innocence is their default state. A defendant departs that state of innocence only if the jury finds him “guilty” of a crime. If the jury finds a defendant “not guilty”, he remains innocent, as he has been all along.

Therefore, a defendant who is found “not guilty” has a stronger claim to “innocence” than the rest of us — he actually withstood the test of a trial. And Enron defendants who won acquittals at trial or through the courts are undoubtedly “innocent” because, contrary to justice, they were presumed guilty and had to prove their innocence — therefore, they met a burden of proof of innocence that few people are ever forced to confront.

Cara Ellison

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