Difference between innocent and not-guilty

In the Anyone think OJ is not a killer? thread it was mentioned that he was found not-guilty which is not the same as ‘innocent’. Is there really such a distinction in American law and if so, why? I though that you were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty so if you’re not guilty then surely you are innocent?
Can somebody clear up my confusion?

There is no finding of “innocent” in American law. “Not Guilty” means the prosecution has not proved the accused committed the crime charged to the degree of certainly required for conviction.

The North Carolina Attorney General took an unusual step when, in dismissing the charges against the Duke Lacross players, he proclaimed them “innocent”. This was basically saying there was no evidence of a crime and that the charges should never have been brought.

While both “innocence” and “guilt” and their adjectives have a wide range of related meanings, the legal ones are those in play here.

Innocence at law is the state of not having committed an actionable act, i.e., something for which you can be haled into court. You the reader of this thread are innocent of manslaughter, forcible sodomy of ferrets, criminal trespass on the property of Qadgop the Mercotan, and speeding within the city limits of Xenia, Ohio, among other things.

“Innocent” is not a verdict which a judge or jury may arrive at following a criminal trial. That trial is to determine one’s guilt with regard to a particular crime charged against you.

And you are not “innocent until proven guilty”-- you’re “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” That’s a small but significant distinction. If the law regarded you as definitely innocent, you could not be arrested, much like the olden days when “the king could do no wrong.” Rather, we assume that the cop who arrested you was not completely out to lunch in doing so, and that you may be held, or required to post bail, to answer for the crime charged against you at trial. But, and this is the important part, you do not have to prove yourself innocent. It’s the job of the prosecution to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the particular crime charged against you. The initial presumption is that you are not guilty of that crime; the prosecutor must overcome that presumption. You are then privileged to debunk his attempt to so prove. In other words, the initial onus of proof is on the prosecution; if he makes a case, the onus shifts to the defense, to rebut his case by making a case of their own.

It might also be noted that in a civil trial the bar between guilty and not guilty is much lower than in a criminal court. This is why, despite O.J. being found not guilty in a criminal court could still be successfully sued for the crime in a Civil court.

If he was found “innocent” then presumably even a civil court trial would not go because he then literally would not have done what he is being sued for.

Did you know that George W. Bush has never once been elected to an appointive office, anywhere in the United States of America?

That’s about equivalent to what you’re saying here.

Yes, the standard of proof is substantially lower at civil trial than at criminal. But that’s in part because nobody is being charged with a crime. If you enter onto my property and take my lovingly-restored Auburn coupe, under the impression that it is your own missing lovingly-restored Auburn coupe, I don’t want to send you to jail; I want my car back. And I’m going to sue you for it, including the cost of the lawyer to prove that what you have is my car, not your own, and what it cost me to replace the garage doors you destroyed.

A suit for a civil wrong is a tort – and it’s quite different from a crime. Say I’m a minor child, and you stopped at a bar, had a couple of drinks, went to drive home and went out of control on a wet road, and slammed into my father’s car and killed him. You were haled into court and proved that (a) it was an unavoidable accident, (b) you were not legally drunk, or even at the minimum level for DUI, and (c) you committed no crime. I can still sue you for wrongful death, using the evidence that came out in criminal trial regarding whatever level of culpability for the accident you may have had. The judge can’t send you to jail for it; all he can do is mulct you to grant me damages for what I lost and can never get back.

This may be nitpicking although it is not intended to be, but the civil suit does not include a formal finding of guilt for the criminal act. In a suit for wrongful death, what you as the plaintiff must prove is that the actions of the defendant (be those actions criminal or merely negligent) caused the death of your decedent and you should be compensated for that wrongful conduct. Obviously, having found that the defendant actually DID cause the wrongful death of the decedent pretty well boils down to determining that, yes, he DID kill him, but that is a finding of fact supporting the verdict for wrongful death, it is not the verdict itself. IOW, the finding that the murderer DID kill the victim is only relevant in the context of the civil suit, because it supports the verdict, and that finding of fact has no real legal effect outside the case in which that particular fact was found.

This is complete speculation because there’s no such thing as a finding of “innocent” under U.S. law, but I’m not sure you are correct here. Just as a finding of “not guilty” by a criminal jury does not bar a subsequent civil action, I’m not sure a finding of “innocent” would bar such an action, either, although I suppose it might. But it might not, because such a finding would be the determination of that jury in that action only, and it is not clear their conclusion would be universally binding so as to bar any subsequent civil action.

In Scotland they have three possible verdicts: guilty, not proven, and not guilty. Because they have the option of reaching the so-called Scottish Verdict of “not proven” if they feel the prosecution did not make its case, the verdict of “not guilty” means, essentially, “innocent”. I would be interested to know if a Scottish verdict of “not guilty” bars a subsequent civil suit. Do our Board resources of knowledge in many subjects include a Scots criminal lawyer? :slight_smile:

Every tort is a civil suit, but not every civil suit is a tort.

And to further illustrate what Jodi has said:

You might well be “innocent” of the crime of murder, and still be liable for damages for “wrongful death” depending upon the facts and the definitions of “murder” and “wrongful death.” For example, “wrongful death” might include homicides that don’t require intent to kill, whereas in general, “murder” requires intent (unintentional homicides are called “manslaughter” as a rule; I’m not going to get into a long dissertation on the ins and outs of what is what, since my typing fingers are tires. :smiley: ).

It is not a good idea to think of the term “innocent” when dealing with American criminal jurisprudence. Since it has little or no significant meaning, relevant to criminal trials and procedure, it’s best not used at all. “Not guilty” means exactly what it says, not shown to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As for the rest, Polycarp and Jodi have illustrated the concepts well. :slight_smile:

I have been through the charming seat of Greene County many times, often in excess of the posted limit. Are you saying that since I wasn’t observed and cited for being in violation that I’m innocent?

Good point - and one that’s much overlooked. Specifically, when charged with a crime you’re entitled to a presumption of innocence in all legal proceedings. This does not mean you are innocent, nor is there any requirement for society in general to regard you as innocent - only for the legal system to behave in certain ways.

I guess my mistake is equating “innocent” with “had absolutely nothing to do with it” versus “not guilty” meaning either you cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt or I was involved but not to the point of committing a crime (but may still be sought for damages for some degree of negligence or what have you).

I want to add something…

I do not understand O.J. being liable in a civil suit for murder. I understand the distinctions made above between “not guilty” and “innocent” and how not guilty does not absolve you of civil liability in many cases.

But with murder I get a big “WTF?” moment when someone would take you to civil court over it but you were found not guilty in criminal court. I can see where some unintentional death would not be criminal but may deserve a civil penalty. But murder…as in not an accident, I was trying to kill you? Seems a whole different ball of wax to me and how a civil court could ignore the criminal proceeding that found you not guilty but say you were somehow still liable seems more than odd.

If I am a party to a murder my understanding is I can be charged with the murder even if I did not do the actual deed (e.g. I drove the getaway car). So how can a civil court say you were somehow party to the crime of murder (not manslaughter) sufficient that you owe the plaintiff money but not sufficient to throw your ass in jail?

Part of your answer is that a civil court cannot find you guilty of the the crime of murder or manslaughter. Simpson was found not guilty of murder in the criminal trial. In the civil trial he was found liable for wrongful death.

I understand the process…I do not understand the logic.

I can understand the logic in some cases where you may not be criminally negligent but negligent enough to have a civil suit brought against you. Maybe I dropped the soap in the shower and the next person to use it slipped on it and broke their neck. Maybe not enough to have society want me in jail but perhaps enough to say you owe the family something for this.

But in O.J.'s case the “wrongful death” the civil court found him liable for was murder. Not an oops but a you intentionally killed someone. That criminal courts require a higher standard of proof I get but really…one court says, “We can not find sufficient reason to imprison you for this crime” while the other court says, “We think you did in fact bury a knife in that other person…pay a million dollars.”

Seems absurd to me.

No, it was not. “Murder” and “Wrongful Death” have different elements.

“Oops” or “intentional” is not the only distinction recognised by the law when it comes to killing.

Because you are intentionally stating it in an absurd way. Did the civil court actually say what you are putting in its mouth here?

I would be very surprised if it did, but I don’t know for certain either. I would point out that there is a somewhat related concept in US law called collateral estoppel, in which a finding of fact in one trial can be used as unquestioned proof of that fact in another trial.

But for collateral estoppel to come into play, one thing that’s traditionally been true (although changing in today’s modern, newfangled legal world) is mutuality of the parties: Joe can use collateral estoppel to prove Bob did X only if Joe and Bob were the parties at the original trial that proved Bob did X (or if Joe and Bob were parties in interest). And the standards of proof at both trials must be the same. Those two concerns effectively prevent collateral estoppel from crossing into the civil world.

It would be more accurate (and perhaps a trifle less confusing) to characterize this as “We find that the state did not meet its burden of proof.”

I stated it in an absurd way because I believe it highlights the absurdity of what they are saying. Seems semantics at its worst.

As mentioned with the hypothetical soap situation I mentioned above I am fine with the notion that someone might be civilly responsible while not being criminally responsible.

But in the case of murder we have a criminal trial where they say (for example), “We cannot find sufficient proof that you plunged a knife into person X.”

Now you move to the civil trial. The facts are still the same. No one is all of a sudden suggesting it was just some unfortunate accident. They are still trying to show you did in fact plunge the knife into person X.

That the civil court can find guilt of this sufficient to make you write a check where the criminal court didn’t seems absurd. Call it “wrongful death” or any other euphemism for murder you care to come up with. They are still on about what is essentially MURDER and deciding that you did do it.

That mismatch to me is an absurdity.

Ooh, collateral estoppel! I wrote a big honkin’ paper on this. Issue precluson! Claim preclusion! Res judicata! It’s all just a big ol’ ball of fun. Your post is completely correct, but allow me to clarify that when you say “these two concerns effectivley prevent collateral estoppel from crossing into the civil world” you mean crossing over from the criminal world. CE is a doctrine that is applicable in civil cases too, but only with regard to other civil cases.

Yup – crossing over from the criminal world, which I hoped was clear from the context of the discussion, but (especially when the issue is collateral estoppel) clear and precise statement is a good thing.

And to be even more clear and precise: collateral estoppel has an application in the criminal world (Ashe v. Swenson) and in the civil world. What doesn’t 'cross over" is being estopped in the criminal context by a fact proven in the civil arena, or vice-versa.

Maybe thinking about the different standards of proof will help.

In the criminal trial, the jury must answer the question: “Do we believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused plunged a knife into person X?”

In the civil trial, the jury must answer the question: “Do we believe, by preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant plunged a knife into person X?”

If the jury believes, let’s say, that it’s more likely than not than the the defendant did the knife-plunging, they should find him liable at the civil trial – “more likely than not” meets the preponderance of the evidence standard. But they may say, “I have to admit that I have some doubts; it’s reasonable to think it could have happened this other way,” then they should acquit on the criminal charge