Actual innocence

Actual innocence

Actual innocence is the most widely used [Paul Bergman, Sara J. Berman-Barrett, "The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System" (2007), p. 285 (stating "Undoubtedly, the most common defenseargument is that the prosecution has failed to prove the defendant guilty").] [Thomas J. Gardner, Victor Manian, "Criminal Law: Principles, Cases, and Readings" (1975), p. 123 (stating "The most common defense to a criminal charge is that of denying that the defendant committed the offense").] - yet often the least studied - defense to crime. Most law school criminal law courses focus on defenses that apply where the accused in fact committed a criminal act, but presents an excuse that eliminates their liability for that act. In such cases, the defendant may be acquitted despite the concession that the defendant committed a criminal act. In the vast majority of cases, however, the defense put forth for crime is that the evidence supports the claim that the defendant committed no criminal act at all.

The typical innocence defense

Because the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant asserting actual innocence need only raise a reasonable doubt as to whether they were the person who committed a particular crime, or whether the acts that they committed amount to the commission of a crime. In point of fact, the defendant is not obliged to present a defense at all.

Examples of an actual innocence defense include:
*Alibi - the defendant will present evidence of having been in a different location, thereby making it impossible for the defendant to have committed the crime.
*Mistaken identity - although the prosecution bears the burden of proving that a defendant has been properly identified, the defendant may still need to call into question the memory and/or credibility of witnesses claiming to have seen the commission of the crime.
*Frameup - the defendant will assert that the falsification of evidence has resulted in the creation of a meritless case against him, usually by the police or similar persons of authority with access to the crime scene, or by private parties hoping to profit from the defendant's misfortune. If the prosecution is relying on the defendant's confession, the defendant may assert that a false confession was extracted through coercive means.Many celebrated criminal cases have rested solely on the defense that the defendant did not commit the crime - for example, O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, and Michael Jackson all claimed that they simply had not committed the acts charged. By contrast, defendants such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Susan Smith, and Lorena Bobbitt conceded that they committed the criminal act, but raised defenses such as insanity or diminished capacity.

No "actual innocence" plea in post-conviction collateral proceedings

In jurisdictions that provide post-conviction collateral relief, there is generally no "actual innocence" grounds for relief absent some constitutional violation. Thus, in order to obtain post-conviction collateral relief, a defendant must often plead a specific statutory grounds for relief, i.e., that the conviction was obtain in violation of the Constitution of the United States. In jurisdictions that restrict a court's power to hear a post-conviction petition to a time period defined by statute, the court cannot grant post-conviction relief upon expiration of the time period regardless of the discovery of proof of "actual innocence" of the crime for which he was convicted. The jurisdictional bar is often rationalized by citing the requirement of finality of the judicial process in order to maintain the integrity of the system.

Pleading in the alternative

Because pleading in the alternative is generally permitted in criminal cases, a defendant may claim to have not committed the crime itself, but at the same time may claim that "if" the defendant had committed the crime, the act was excused for a reason such as insanity or intoxication, or was justified due to provocation or self defense.


*Jim Dwyer, Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, "Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and how to Make it Right" (2001) ISBN 0451203658.
* Jon B. Gould, "The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Justice System" (2008), ISBN 0814731791.

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