Innocent Until Proven Guilty: The History and Current Application of the Presumption of Innocence

July 1, 2021 Criminal Defense

“Innocent until proven guilty,” or the presumption of innocence, is a legal phrase deeply entrenched in popular culture. It can be heard on television and in movies during a legal drama, and in the news when a certain case captures national attention. However, not many people know the roots of the phrase or how it actually applies to criminal defendants today. This legal maxim applies to any individual charged with a crime and ensures that the criminal defendant is seen as innocent until they are proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a court of law. Essentially, this phrase establishes the burden that prosecutors carry. Prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt as to every element of the crime charged rather than a defendant having to prove their innocence.

The History

This legal maxim had its first official entrance into American law with the 1894 Supreme Court decision, Coffin v. United States.[1] In that case, the lower court did not instruct the jury that those charged with crimes are presumed innocent until the prosecution proves that they are guilty by competent evidence. On appeal, Justice Edward Douglas White wrote the majority opinion and traced the history of the phrase. When he began discussing the Anglo-American history, he found this phrase clearly articulated in several nineteenth-century treatises discussing evidence and criminal law. These treatises were penned by authors such as William Wills’ “On Circumstantial Evidence” published in 1860, Simon Greenleaf’s “On the Law of Evidence” published between 1842 through 1853, and William Best’s “On Presumptions” published in 1844. These jurists all discussed the principle of the presumption of innocence, but only Best explicitly stated that “it is a maxim of law that every person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.” While trying to trace the phrase’s history in English common law, he only found one supporting text, “North American Review” penned anonymously in 1851 which stated that an Irish jurist named Leonard MacNally was the first one to publish the maxim in a treatise.[2]

However, the real history of the presumption of innocence can be traced much further back. Supposedly, ancient Babylonia’s “Code of Hammurabi” put the burden of proof on the person accusing someone else of a crime.[3] Later, Demosthenes, an ancient Greek statesman apparently wrote about the presumption in his texts.[4] Additionally, a third-century Roman legal document titled “Constitutio Antoniniana” apparently established rules regarding the accuser’s presentation of evidence against the accused.[5] Due to the unsure nature of language, a phrase’s exact inception is almost impossible to pinpoint if it occurred prior to the dawn of the internet. However, we can be sure that the presumption of innocence has been around as a concept for most of recorded human history.

The Presumption of Innocence Today

The presumption of innocence has several applications in today’s world of criminal procedure. This presumption means that prosecutors must be discerning in deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges against a suspect, since they will have the burden of proving guilt using only admissible evidence. Therefore, this presumption is a safeguard against the government wantonly charging suspects in a manner that harasses or subjugates the citizen. Additionally, this maxim illustrates that the defendant in a criminal case is not burdened with presented evidence on their behalf or gathering witnesses to testify for them. Though most criminal defendants do make cases for themselves, they can still be found “not guilty” if the government fails to prove their guilty beyond every reasonable doubt, even if they do not present a case on their own behalf. In fact, juries in criminal cases are instructed prior to deliberation that the prosecutor has the burden of proving guilt, and the criminal defendant holds no such burden – they can remain completely silent. This can be seen in the standard jury instructions which state that “[i]n every criminal proceeding a defendant has the absolute right to remain silent … [a]t no time do defendants have a duty to prove their innocence … [f]rom the exercise of a defendant’s right to remain silent, a jury is not permitted to draw any inference of guilty, and the fact that a defendant did not take the witness stand must not influence your verdict in any manner whatsoever.”[6] Therefore, in every single criminal case, the government has the burden of proving that:

  1. The defendant actually did commit the criminal act for which they are charged; and
  2. The defendant had the requisite criminal intent needed to commit the crime for which they are charged. This intent will vary depending on the crime charged, but some examples include familiar words like “knowingly,” “voluntarily,” “intentionally, “negligently,” or “recklessly.”

The presumption of innocence is now seen as a fundamental right, with the presence of the principle seen in various documents, like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Colombian Constitution, and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Criminal Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, FL

The fundamental right of a presumption of innocence is sacred and must be zealously guarded. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, know that you are absolutely innocent until proven guilty. While you are not required to present a defense, it is advisable to do so, and do so with the help of an educated and passionate criminal defense attorney. Contact a Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to ensure you or a loved one are afforded effective and aggressive counsel. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience defending Floridians against criminal charges. Call a defense attorney today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your options during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

This article was written by Gabi D’Esposito

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[1] Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1984).

[2] Coffin, 156 U.S. at 455.

[3] Hammurabi, King of Babylonia, The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon (About 2250 B.C.)

[4] Lily Rothman, The Meaning of ‘Presumed Innocent Has Evolved, TIME, available at:

[5] Emperor Caracalla, Constitutio Antoniniana.

[6] Fla. Prelim. Jury Instr. 2.1.

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