Guilty Until Proven Innocent?
In America, they believe in the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. This principle is one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, and it means precisely what it says.
No guilt can be affixed to a person until it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the offence they are charged with.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard of proof required to prove guilt and it means that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the accused committed the crime with which they are charged.
Well, what about Australia? In Australia, we have a very similar principle called the ‘presumption of innocence’. The presumption of innocence means that no one is presumed guilty until the prosecution has proved the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. This principle comes from article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The presumption of innocence is as old as law itself. In Lee v New South Wales Crime Commission  HCA 39, Kiefel J stated:
“The golden thread of the system of English criminal law is that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt. This is consistent with the presumption of innocence. It finds expression as a fundamental principle of the common law of Australia”.
In upholding this principal, it has long been considered that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer”, as Lord Blackstone once stated.
When charges proceed to trial in Australia, before the District or Supreme Court, they will sometimes be heard before a jury. When this is the case, the Judge will have an important role at the end of the trial where he or she will ‘charge’ them. This means that the Judge will direct the jury on the law and the facts of the case being tried. The Judge will usually summarise the prosecution case, the defence position, and any other important legal principles which may apply. In every case, the Judge will need to direct the jury that before reaching a verdict of guilty for any charge, they must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the charge has been proven. Charging the jury is one of the most important stages in the trial, and so it is important that the charge is clear and accurate, so that the jury can properly deliberate on the matter.
If the Judge does not adequately charge the jury, it is possible that a conviction could be overturned on appeal. A great example of this is the case of MNA v State of Western Australia. This was a criminal law trial which was appealed in the Supreme Court of Western Australia Court of Appeal, this year. In this case, the appellant appealed against his conviction for which he was found guilty, following his trial in the District Court of Western Australia in January 2019. There were three grounds of appeal in this matter with the third being that a miscarriage of justice was occasioned by the absence of a direction of the Judge in identifying the limits of the permissible use of the propensity evidence also known as “similar fact” evidence. The appeal was successful, and a new trial was ordered.
Another interesting example is the matter of OKS v State of Western Australia. In this matter, the trial judge directed the jury that just because the complainant had been proven to have lied, that all of her evidence is dishonest. This appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Western Australia Court of Appeal. However, this was overturned by the High Court, and it was shown that a severe miscarriage of justice had occurred. The appellant’s conviction was quashed, and a new trial was ordered.
If you need assistance with a criminal matter or would like more information, please contact our Criminal Team at Butlers, today.