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You Are Charged With A Crime. How Can You Prove That You Are Innocent?

This notion comes up frequently during the course of consultations with prospective clients that have been charged with a crime. As a technical matter, no one ever has to prove they are innocent. Everyone who has attended a 3rd-grade level civics course knows of the time-honored, constitutional mandate: “presumed innocent until proven guilty”. The prosecuting authority, in Maryland, the office if the State's Attorney, of course, has the duty and obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in every criminal case. If they cannot meet that standard of proof, the defendant must be acquitted. 

Without question, any individual who has not committed the offense with which they are charged should absolutely produce all photographic, documentary, alibi or scientific evidence that would tend to exonerate them immediately to the prosecutor or police, even before charges are filed.  Any good criminal defense attorney will throw his or her efforts wholeheartedly into that process.

Unfortunately, in most cases that level of exculpatory evidence simply doesn't exist.

Again, as a precise, technical matter, it is not, under our system of criminal justice, and never will be, a question of whether or not someone can prove they are innocent. Rather, the only question is whether the State can prove that they are guilty. As a less esoteric, semantic, and more practical matter, however, the notion of proving innocence presents a fundamental problem. Perhaps the most well-known example of proving innocence is found on TV in shows like Perry Mason or Matlock where it's dramatically revealed at the conclusion of the show that another person was the real perpetrator of the crime. It should be immediately apparent that since the best-known example of something occurs in a fictional world, it doesn't happen in real life- at least not very often. In our Perry Mason1 scenario, the wrongfully accused innocent person has indeed proven their innocence. The essential problem with proving one's innocence, conceptually and pragmatically, is it is often difficult or impossible to prove a negative or to prove, conclusively, something did not happen. Reduced to its most basic, I think that wrestling with that fundamental impossibility is at the core of the challenges presented by the question “how do I prove my innocence?” There may simply be no proof an act did not occur or that a particular individual was not the cause of a particular event.

A key role of a criminal defense attorney, of course, is to understand what the State must prove to obtain a conviction and to identify weaknesses in the State’s proof.

Certainly, the law provides certain defenses by which an accused individual can defeat the State’s case. One example would be an alibi defense where someone admits that a crime happened but they can demonstrate satisfactorily that they could not have committed the crime because they were somewhere else. But, even here, the defendant does technically not have to prove they were somewhere else. Rather, if they can offer enough credible evidence on this score, a reasonable doubt in the mind of jurors might be created, to the extent that the State cannot meet its burden of proof. To be sure, the law does provide some affirmative defenses where a defendant actually ahs to prove the elements of the defense. Perhaps the classic example of "self-defense". Here, the defendant indeed has the obligation to show that they were not an initial aggressor, that the reasonably feared for their bodily safety, and that they responded proportionally to the threat or force used against them. While defenses are not rare in an objective sense, they are probably not utilized, or indeed available, in many common criminal cases.

The most common, everyday scenario in my experience is one in which the State has the obligation to prove that someone committed an offense. They need to establish:

  • the identity of the perpetrator
  • that perpetrator committed an act constituting each element of the offense charged
  • and was acting with the requisite intent.

If the State cannot demonstrate one of those- the case has failed. From this perspective, it is never a situation of whether or not a defendant can prove they are innocent, but rather can they successfully argue the State failed to prove they are guilty. The vital function of a criminal defense attorney, of course, is to understand what the State must prove how to obtain a conviction and to identify weaknesses in the State’s proof.

     -This Article was updated by Eric Kirk on 11/12/20.

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1  The reference might be a bit dated.  https://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/14/obituaries/raymond-burr-actor-76-dies-played-perry-mason-and-ironside.html

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