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‘Not guilty’ means ‘innocent’

I’d like to discuss the most recent news surrounding Casey Anthony, namely, her desire to change her name and move out of the Orlando area.

The moves are because of the verdict last week that acquitted Casey of murdering her daughter, Caylee. Due to the resulting shock and anger, Casey may fear reprisals and death threats from a seething public.

In many ways, the anger from the public is reasonable, because the public was spoon-fed by media outlets and talking heads that Casey was guilty of murdering her child. So reckless was the media in their attempts to decide the verdict for the public that some jurors now fear for their own lives, and one man from Pennsylvania also named “Casey Anthony” is receiving threatening messages.

I am deeply troubled by the sardonic commentary spreading through various news channels regarding Casey’s plans to change her name. In the New York Post, Chuck Bennett wrote, “She can hide from the public — but not her conscience.” This cavalier attitude to render someone guilty after being found not guilty is distressing and unfortunate.

This is especially true when it comes from those who are trusted to report facts (journalists) or those who  swear to uphold the laws of this nation (lawyers). As I noted in my post last week, our legal system is based on the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. A jury of 12 evaluated the evidence offered to them and without coaxing from the media decided that Casey Anthony was not guilty of the various homicide-related crimes.

Many in the media, including attorneys, have gone to great lengths to distinguish between the term “not guilty” and “innocent.” I do not make that distinction, mainly because it is a legal fallacy. If you’re found “not guilty” by a jury of your peers, you’re innocent as far as the law is concerned. That’s why it’s called “the presumption of innocence.” For attorneys to go on TV and attempt to make that distinction is not only disingenuous to the profession, but in my opinion, reprehensible.

We, as attorneys, know better. Simply put, if a jury of 12 found Casey “not guilty”, our nation must accept it and allow her to live her life. If that requires a name change and change of residence, so be it.


  1. Apparently you do not understand what a presumption is. A presumption is an evidentiary device, nothing more. It signifies that the prosecutor bears the burden of proof. A verdict of “not guilty” means that the prosecutor failed to meet that burden. It does not render anyone “innocent” any more than a denial of a motion for summary judgment results in a judgment for the opposing party. You may find the opinions of attorneys who disagree with you “reprehensible,” but your opinion, respectfully, isn’t the one that counts. Having been found not guilty, Anthony should, as you suggest, be permitted to get her life back in order. The fact that she is entitled to do that does not invalidate my opinion that she is guilty as hell, and since the First Amendment hasn’t been stricken from the Constitution (yet), I am entitled to that opinion regardless of how you may feel about it.

  2. When you were in law school did no one ever explain the difference to you between a presumption and a fact. You indicate that Anthony is entitled to the “presumption of innocence” but seem to treat her innocence as a now established fact. She is not innocent as a factual matter, she is only entitled to be presumed innocent for legal purposes (e.g., filling out applications for school, housing, work, licenses, and the like). As a factual matter, she is as innocent as O.J. Like you, I have no love for pundits and think the furor over the Anthony trial, largely fueled by Nancy Grace and Grace wannabees, was shameful, a sign of the vulgar immaturity of this Country. No one was more cavalier about ethics than Nancy Grace when she practiced (in both senses) law, and she might have gotten out of the profession just before she was kicked out. I also agree that Anthony ought to be allowed to live her life free from harassment, as eventually she will. All soap operas ultimately end. But a lawyer ought to be less cavalier with language and concepts, and to the extent that there is a “legal fallacy” in your post (whatever that means), it is all yours.

  3. Arman Tamzarian

    You are confusing what is legally proved versus what is reality. Someone is found not guilty for a variety of reasons, but not necessarily because they did not commit the act as charged. Suppose there was a videotape of someone commiting a murder that was disallowed because the police obtained it illegally. The jury never sees the tape and the murderer is found not guilty. So, you would say they were innocent…..

  4. Excellent article.

  5. If “not guilty” really meant “innocent,” a “not guilty” plea by someone who, in fact, committed the crime, would be lying to the court (it wouldn’t be perjury, because pleas are not taken under oath). In fact, not guilty pleas are not viewed as lies, regardless of how much blood the accused has on his or her hands. Rather, a “not guilty” plea simply means “prove that I did it.”

    A “not guilty” verdict, similarly, means only that, in the jury’s opinion, there was not enough evidence to convict. It doesn’t mean the person is innocent, which is why the same person found “not guilty” in a criminal trial is often found to be guilty in a subsequent civil trial, which has a lesser burden of proof (preponderance of the evidence).

  6. Eduardo Gonzalez

    Isolde and Pushkin,

    If you’re attorneys (especially criminal defense attorneys), I’m saddened to see you’re trying to make the distinction between whether someone is legally “guilty” and factually “guilty”. All that matters in this nation is the former. Leave morality and “reality” out of it. A jury of 12 found her not guilty. Case closed.

  7. When I need a second year associate to instruct me on criminal procedure, I’ll let you know.

    But it’s refreshing to know that you believe morality and reality have nothing to do with law. In fact, I think you should make that the centerpiece of your next closing argument, particularly one on the Eastern Shore. I’ll bring the popcorn.

  8. No, the distinction being made is not between factual guilt and legal guilt. The distinction being made is between fact and presumption. One term describes an event in the physical world and the other describes an idea. To confuse the two is to make what philosophers call a category mistake (though you don’t seem the type to have taken a philosophy course, so I agree that it would be unfair of me to expect you to know that).

    When you say “all that matters in this nation,” did you take the survey, or do we have just your word for it? The public reaction to both the Anthony and OJ Simpson trials might suggest that people get a little worked up about issues of fact.

    As for the morality issue, no one brought it up until you just did. I’m not even sure what it is.

    I’m also not clear about the nature of your anti-reality point. It is difficult to figure out how to leave reality out of reality. Is your unreal view intended as an illustration?

    Finally, both Isolde and I agreed that the Anthony case was closed and that she should be allowed to get on with her life. You would have known that had you read our comments all the way to the end. Did you add the emphatic “Case closed” because you’ve always admired Cato the Elder, or did you just think that an exclamation point was inadequate?

    I understand that the columnists on this this particular blog are “rising stars in the legal profession,” but until now I had not realized that it was because their views are lighter than air. Well E.G., Rise On, as the kids used to say in the Sixties.

  9. Charles Jannace

    After the conclusion of the Anthony trial I heard that in Scotland instead of “not guilty”, a defense verdict is declared as “not proven”. I believe that our “not guilty” verdict is exactly that and perhaps would be better phrased as “not proven”. Too frequently the terms “innocence” and “not guilty” are used interchangeably in jury trials, especially by wily prosecutors but clearly the terms are mutually exclusive in this context. In what I deem to be close cases I have frequently made this distinction to juries in closing arguments and believe that it has helped in some instances. Indeed, I long ago drafted a proposed jury instruction along these lines but could never get it past a prosecutor’s objection. No Judge wanted to take the risk.

  10. Thank you so much for explaining this. I see it everywhere in articles on the news with the Casey Anthony Story and it just didn’t feel right. Great article.

  11. I don’t agree with the comments above. I am not an attorney but if someone is charged with a crime that they didn’t commit and they are found “not guilty” because in fact they are innocent, than there should be a distinction. It is not fair to say that because a person is “not guilty” that they are still at fault, just that the prosecution wasn’t able to prove their case. If that was true, everyone in this world is guilty of something at some point that was not proven. The law is dysfunctional.

  12. So apparently if I secretly bribe the jurors and they find “not guilty” then I am innocent. The distinction between presumption and fact is VERY relevant, and it’s specifically *why* courts never find a defendant “innocent”. You don’t need to prove somebody innocent, you just need to demonstrate that the prosecution’s case fails to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an important distinction, whether or not you are prepared to throw your morality out the window.

    Let’s say John Doe is accused of kidnapping and raping children, let’s say he actually committed this crime multiple times. But he bribes the jurors, or the prosecution is incompetent, or secretly he and the judge are friends, etc, and he is found not guilty. Then he moves in next door to your family. By your argument you should be completely comfortable having him live next door, watching your kids play in the yard from his bedroom window. Because he’s innocent, right?

    In your heart, you know there is a difference between innocent and not guilty, and you know it matters.

    That being said, I agree with you that if someone is found not guilty, they should be allowed to get on with their lives, assuming there is no evidence of jury tampering, or conflict of interest, or prosecutorial incompetence.

  13. Like others, I agree that a failure to discharge the burden of proof for guilty finding does not equate to innocence. This is how the law decides the matter and it is not for the public to presume that it can be something more.

    @Not guilty.
    Juries do not find people innocent.

  14. Not guilty can sometimes mean you’re innocent. Not guilty 100 out of 100 means that according to the court, they are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. To keep things easy, only YOU can know whether or not if you’re innocent or not. That’s why you hear people say, “I’m innocent!” vs “I’m not guilty!”