In U.S. criminal cases, the burden rests upon the accuser – the government – to prove that the defendant is guilty of a crime. To allow the defendant a fair trial, they are presumed innocent unless the prosecutor can show otherwise. That means the judge or jury hearing the case must accept that the defendant is not guilty and must base their determination of guilt only on the evidence the prosecutor presents in the case. Because the defendant is presumed innocent, they do not have to prove that they did not commit the alleged offense; the burden typically rests solely on the prosecutor.
Because the consequences of a conviction are steep – often resulting in fines, jail/prison time, and administrative penalties limiting a person’s rights – the evidentiary standards prosecution must meet are high; they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the alleged crime. This does not mean there can be no doubt at all, but the judge or jury does have to be convinced, with moral certainty, of the logical conclusion that the defendant committed the alleged act. If the prosecution cannot successfully prove the defendant is guilty, the judge or jury must find them “not guilty.”
Theoretically, the presumption protects innocent people from being convicted of an offense they didn’t commit, thereby preventing them from suffering the harsh consequences of a conviction. It also means that the judge or jury cannot base their determination on any extraneous factors or any assumption of personal character; final decisions must be based on the strength of the evidence presented in court.
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