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Innocent Until Proven Guilty: Origin, Law & Meaning

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  • 0:00 What Is the Origin?
  • 1:00 What Is the Law?
  • 1:37 What Is the Meaning?
  • 2:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Marcia Neely

Marcia Neely is a teacher who holds both a MS degree in Reading & Literacy and a Ed Specialist degree in Curriculum & Instruction.

The principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' is a legal concept which guarantees that the guilt of an accused person cannot be presumed. This lesson takes you through the origin, law, and meaning of this ancient tenet.

What is the Origin

The notion of innocent until proven guilty is a widely held point of view in many legal systems across the globe. In fact, research corroborates that the tenet was born in the late thirteenth century, was preserved in the universal jurisprudence of ancient times, and later survived in the early modern period. Finally, it was employed as an influential argument opposing torture from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

However, the theory officially entered United States law in the legal case Coffin vs. U.S. (1894). The Coffin case involved two defendants, Francis A. Coffin and Percival A. Coffin, who had been convicted of misapplication of funds and making false entries in their employer's bank records. The court's decision would influence the law as it pertains to the accused. It was during this particular case that the court established the justification for and rationalization of presumed innocence.

What is the Law

Even though the Constitution of the United States does not mention it explicitly, presumption of innocence is commonly sustained by the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments. Consequently, it is a right that is so central to modern democracies that many have explicitly included it in their legal systems and constitutions. In fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11, states that: 'Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.'

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