Famous jurists and founding fathers have long held that it is better for guilty men to go free than for innocent men to spend a night in prison. According to the UCLA law school, both William Blackstone and Benjamin Franklin, men who greatly influenced the creation of American government and jurisprudence, proclaimed that it was better to zealously protect the rights of innocent men than to aggressively prosecute suspects. Today, we know the quotes of Blackstone and Franklin by the common phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” In American jurisprudence, a presumption of innocence exists until a defendant is found guilty by judge or jury.
This presumption is important because it contradicted the judicial systems of the European nations from whence America sprung in the 18th century. Medieval and Renaissance Europe had long been a bastion of aggressive and arbitrary prosecution, with cruel eras like the Spanish Inquisition and various trials of religious prosecution seeing the use of brutality and torture to coerce false confessions. The presumption during these eras was that an accused person was guilty and that it was acceptable to coerce them to admit their crimes. Criminal justice and jurisprudence during these centuries was quick, brutal, and often inaccurate.
Medieval and Renaissance prosecutorial brutality, often religious in nature, came to America early. Early settlers in the New World were devout worshippers and there was little or no separation between church and state. According to the University of Missouri – Kansas City, the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 are a prime example of the intermingling of church and state run amok. Religious fervor, including among the jurists, led to overzealous prosecution of alleged witches. Those accused of witchcraft were considered guilty and trials of the era were little more than show trials.
America’s founding fathers wanted a judicial system far more fair and balanced than the ones preceding the nation’s creation. Religion was to be separate from jurisprudence and legislation. Prosecutions would have limits. The defendants would have rights, outlined in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. According to Cornell University law school, the fourth through eighth amendments provide various rights for defendants, most notably the 5th amendment rights against self-incrimination, double jeopardy, and due process.
The presumption of innocence is revealed in these Constitutional rights: A person cannot be compelled to testify against oneself (commonly referred to as the “right to remain silent”), cannot be tried more than once for the same offense, and must be tried in a prompt manner with the prosecution following prescribed rules. These rights suggest that a defendant is presumed innocent.
By not requiring a person to testify against their own alleged actions, there is no coercion to seek an admission of guilt. This is analogous to assuming that the person is not guilty. Prosecutors must seek evidence from external sources. By not allowing a person to be tried more than once the assumption of innocence is further entrenched. If the prosecution could not prove a defendant guilty in one attempt, they are forever presumed innocent. Finally, the requirement of prompt prosecution also suggests presumed innocence, assuming that if the prosecution cannot find evidence of guilt swiftly the defendant is most likely innocent. Lastly, forcing prosecutors to follow existing laws in prosecuting defendants cements the belief in presumed innocence. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers cannot break the law to uphold the law, suggesting that all suspects and defendants are de facto innocent.