In Court, Why is a Judgement “Not Guilty” Rather than “Innocent”


We see it all the time on news shows, true crime movies, and in documentaries — people will say a person was found “innocent,” or they use “innocent” as a synonym of “not guilty.” But in court, “not guilty” and “innocent” carry very different meanings. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Innocent: This refers to the actual state of the person. They truly did not commit the crime they’re accused of. Innocence isn’t a verdict a court delivers. The main reason is that innocence is virtually impossible to prove

  • Not Guilty: This is a legal finding by the jury. It means the prosecution didn’t meet the burden of proof, which is proving the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There could be reasons for this:

    • Insufficient evidence: The prosecution’s case might have holes or lack convincing proof.
    • Reasonable doubt: The jury might find the evidence presented leaves room for another explanation besides the defendant’s guilt.
    • Procedural issues: Maybe there were problems with how evidence was collected or presented, leading the judge to exclude it.

So, a “not guilty” verdict doesn’t necessarily mean someone is innocent. It just means the legal system couldn’t prove their guilt. They could be truly innocent, but it’s also possible they got away with the crime.

The justice system operates on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This means the burden of proof lies entirely with the prosecution. They have to convince the jury, not the other way around.

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