The term “innocent until proven guilty” is something that we can easily take for granted within the legal system. We are used to the concept of presumed innocence in a modern courtroom setting where the prosecution has to work to prove a defendant’s guilt. It is part of a wider range of legal clauses design to protect us in case we are falsely accused, and to uphold basic rights. But where does the term originate?
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What is the meaning of innocent until proven guilty according to Constitution and Bill of Rights clauses?
This is an interesting misnomer about the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and all the amendments. There is the assumption that one of the many clauses related to law and order contains the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”. However, that isn’t the case. Instead, the notion comes from a combination of factors from previous laws, subsequent court cases, and the way that other Amendments were interpreted over time. The term may not be written in stone in the same way as the right to bear arms or other clauses. But, the evolution of the legal system makes it synonymous with the Bill of Rights.
Why do we associate “innocent until proven guilty” with the U.S Constitution?
The Bill of Rights is one of the most important documents in American history as it outlines a series of 10 fundamental rights for U.S. citizens. They form the basis of federal laws and wider notions of the freedoms associated with America. Over time, further Constitutional Amendments were added to modernize laws. The significance of the document and its place in human rights means that we presume we’ll find reference to innocent until proven guilty according to constitution clauses.
While this isn’t directly true, as that phrase is not found verbatim, there are enough references to similar notions across major amendments. These surely helped to mold the judicial system in favor of presuming innocence rather than guilty rather than “guilty until proven innocent”.
The 5th Amendment.
The 5th Amendment was an important first step in protecting suspects and getting closer to a fairer legal system. There is no direct mention of presumed innocence but the ideas made it harder for the enforcer to punish suspects or work under notions of presumed guilt. The main clause is that “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”.
This remains in force as it puts the responsibility on the prosecution to work with witnesses and statements in a fairer process. The amendment also mentions that no one should be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. This concept reappears years later.
Historians are also quick to point out that James Madison had a lot of influence on the term “innocent before proven guilty” because of his work on this amendment. He was keen for the law to lean towards the protection of the innocent for a fairer system.
The 6th Amendment.
The 6th Amendment takes the idea of fair trials for the accused further. It established the right for individuals to have legal aid, with the emphasis that this extended to everyone regardless of the accusation. The clause also provides the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed”. This mention of an impartial jury is crucial as they would have to be convinced of the suspect’s guilt.
The 14th Amendment.
This later amendment declares that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”. This is a way of bringing the previous points together to ensure that all citizens across the country receive the same treatment. This idea of bridging immunities works with the idea of presumed innocence as it favors the defendant. It goes on to solidify the idea that law enforcement can’t deprive suspects of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. This continues that idea of a fair trial with due process where it is the work of the prosecutor to prove guilt rather than the defendant to prove innocence.
When you read these clauses together and go through the subtext, it is easy to see the notions of presumed innocence – even if it isn’t there in black and white. However, other documents use the term that play their part.
Where does the term actually come from?
There are clear ideas of presumed innocence in courtroom settings and defendant rights from these amendments. It is also worth noting that there is an attribution of the phrase “presumed innocent until proven guilty” to a British barrister in 1761. This may have had its influence on the creation of the Constitution.
However, we also need to look at alternative documents to see a more literal use of the phrase. Some of these are far more contemporary, so would not have been the original basis for the concept in the United States. However, when we take the wording and combine it with those previous notions, we get a combination that ties the two together. It is then much easier to assume that the phrase came earlier.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One of these documents is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was signed as recently as 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Article 11 of the document says: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”. Here the term is there in black and white with no room for misinterpretation. It also applies to more than just the citizens of the United States. It goes on to talk about the importance of a public trial “at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” Pronoun issues aside, this makes the concept of presumed innocence a much wider guarantee.
There is also similar wording in Article 14 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights from 1966. It states that “everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”
The first notable use of presumed innocence in U.S Law.
If we want to get a better idea of what the term innocent until proven guilty comes from, it helps to look at key historical cases. One commonly cited as the starting point for presumed innocence over presumed guilt is Coffin vs. U.S. from 1894.
The Coffin case revolves around an accusation of misapplication of funds on Francis A. Coffin and Percival A. Coffin. They were also said to have made false entries into bank records. At the time, the court established the need for the assumption of innocence with the prosecution proving their guilt. While this is standard practice now, it seems that this was a landmark approach that would go on to influence judicial procedure from thereon.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t other cases and courts interpreting the 5th and 6th Amendments in favor of defendants this way. But, the Coffin Case is seen as a pivotal moment.
Protection of defendants evolved with the creation of the Miranda Rights.
It is also important to note that the law continues to change where necessary to further uphold the idea of presumed innocence. A good example is the Miranda Rights. This is what law enforcement should offer to anyone they arrest for fair treatment and to better utilize those Amendments. This includes the right to remain silent so that suspects don’t say anything incriminating without legal representation present. There is also that right to a lawyer. Without the reading of the rights, statements may be inadmissible.
This development came from the Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision. The court found that Ernesto Arturo Miranda Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were ignored after his arrest, violating his right to a fair trial. Decades later, it was ruled that a suspect’s statements could still be admissible without the Miranda Rights explained if there was a concern for public safety.
“Innocent until proven guilty” evolved from the U.S. Constitution to become just as important as other rights.
This important phrase in the justice system may not be as ingrained in constitutional history as we suspect, but that doesn’t lessen the importance. A lot of the notions behind the Bill of Rights led to vital applications of those constitutional amendments within law and order. The promise of a fair trial where no suspect should act as a witness, nor be refused legal guidance, always made more sense with a presumption of innocence over the presumption of guilt. Add in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this process with inevitable.
We can’t directly find innocent until proven guilty according to constitution clauses. But, it doesn’t matter if it is an official or unofficial constitutional right as long as it remains in force.