Fred fidgeted as the jury filed into the courtroom. He couldn’t read their faces; they seemed neither happy nor sad. Just determined to announce their verdict. And, he guessed, eager to go home to their families.
He wondered if he’d ever get to go home. To his golden retriever, Spot, and his Siamese cat, Mr. Mittens. To his comfortable bed and his collection of Dr. Who bobbleheads. To his 75-inch television with Netflix and HBO and the surround sound speakers he’d installed himself, the quality so amazing that when he watched Star Wars, he could swear he was actually in the Millennium Falcon.
Or maybe he’d spend the rest of his life locked up in the state pen, doing time for a crime he didn’t commit.
The jury foreman stood and cleared his throat. Fred held his breath. “Your honor,” the foreman said. “We pronounce the defendant innocent!”
Fred fainted dead away.
Now, Fred probably fainted from relief. But if he knew anything about the law, he might instead have fainted because the author got things so very wrong.
In the US, there are only two verdicts a jury can issue in a criminal case: guilty or not guilty. That’s it. A guilty verdict means the jury found that the prosecutor proved every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A not-guilty verdict means the jury found that the prosecutor failed to prove at least one element beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are a couple of implications in this. One is that a jury may be pretty sure the defendant committed the crime, but they must still find him not guilty (also called an acquittal) if they have a reasonable doubt about any element of the crime.
But another implication is that even if the jury is dead certain the defendant is innocent, the legal system doesn’t allow them to officially say so. All they can do is say he’s not guilty–and that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “innocent,” does it?
This situation helps us understand why someone can be acquitted of a crime but then successfully sued for the same actions. O.J. Simpson, for instance, was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend—because, presumably, the jury had a doubt about some of the evidence. But when the victims’ families sued him for wrongful death, the families won judgments against him of over $35 million. The standard of proof in civil cases is much lighter than in a criminal case; in civil cases, it’s just a preponderance of the evidence (meaning the winning side has slightly more evidence in its favor). While the criminal jury found the evidence insufficient to meet the high burden in a criminal case, the civil jury found the evidence against Simpson more convincing than not.
Some states do have procedures that allow people accused of crimes to have a court declare them factually innocent, but these procedures are used only rarely and in limited circumstances.
So if the jury finds our friend Fred not guilty, he will get to return home to his beloved pets and his home entertainment system. Unfortunately, he may find that the trial and the criminal accusations hang over him for years, especially since they’re matters of public record. Hopefully, Spot and Mr. Mittens will console him.