Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Sure, you're innocent, but do you know why?

I don't know much about law, but I know this: You're innocent until proven guilty. At least I've watched enough TV dramas to think I know this. So here's the question: where was this statement originally codified? Surely it's in the Constitution or some other founding document; right?

I got curious enough to look, and it turns out, it's not:

The Anglo-American reverence for the maxim does pose an interesting conundrum: it cannot be found in Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution of the United States; and not, I might add, in the works of the great English jurists, Bracton, Coke, and Blackstone.

The principle isn't officially codified until 1895, when the Supreme Court made it official. The short version of the story is this:

We can know exactly when the maxim formally entered American law: through a Supreme Court decision of 1894, Coffin vs. U.S. A lower court had refused to instruct the jury that "The law presumes that persons charged with crime are innocent until they are proven by competent evidence to be guilty". The appeal to the Supreme Court was based in part on the lower court's refusal.

By the way, they won the appeal. The Coffin decision contains a historical attempt to map out the history of innocent until proven guilty and goes as far back as Deuteronomy. The recounting would make a Talmudic scholar proud.

It's remarkable to think that an absolute bedrock principle of American law was only codified nearly 120 years after the country's founding.

Next thing you're going to tell me that that Under G-d wasn't added to the Pledge until the 1950's.

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