I believe that for most people, the semantic distinction is little or none. The end result is the same, and with laws against double jeopardy, the person is essentially innocent of the charges and cannot be tried again (with a few exceptions, I know). Whether we call him “not guilty” or “innocent” makes little difference overall and so in the interest of clarity, I submit that 1) we all agree that it is clearer and better to call someone “innocent”, and 2) we start doing that as soon as possible. If rules or laws have to be rewritten, we should do so or all agree that we can play using “house rules” and use the word “innocent” instead
There’s a couple of issues that I’d like to address first, having heard them before.
“It is too hard/time consuming/expensive to change the process now for what is little to no benefits”
I disagree that there is no benefits. The law should be clear and simple when possible, and using words that have similar meanings while an easier and clearer version exists should be the goal. This saves time and money when it comes to the large number of people affected by the legal system who are not lawyers or trained in law. Given my “house rules” provision above, I don’t know if there is actually a law saying you have to use the words “not guilty”, but if there is, its not hard to pass a law simply replacing one instance of that term with a different word. If its simply a rule, then we would save time/money/headaches by simply all agreeing to ignore that one rule. Its NOT like all of us agreeing to violate the law, not at all, this is merely semantics so don’t go overboard with hyperbole please.
“There is a tradition of using the term that we shouldn’t mess with”
Tradition is not good enough an excuse for a bad law or bad rule. Just like we’ve changed the obviously wrong tradition/law about racism towards minorities, and we’re in the process of changing laws about inequality towards the LGBT community, this tradition is one that is oddly specific yet with no real point. Plus, it has the added albatross of being confusing to laypersons. And if we change it, though one can make an argument that it doesn’t harm anyone by existing as it is now, I can make the same argument that calling someone “innocent” after they are acquitted is also harmless. At the very least, there is a stalemate in arguments, “not guilty” is not “better” in any form than “innocent”
“It doesn’t harm anyone to keep it”
Nor does it harm anyone to change it, especially if it was done with voice consent without any change to the lawbooks. Courts can simply declare that we’re going to use the new word from now on and that’s it. And I submit that “legalese”, or confusion for the sake of confusion, is harmful in and of itself. It creates an impression of resistance to change, petty indifference, and elitist self-segregation. I understand sometimes its necessary to have legalese, but in this case I believe it is not
“I’m not confused by that term, you’re just dumb”
Now now, is that any way to argue? My intelligence or lack thereof aside, it is still more confusing to say “not guilty” rather than “innocent”. The use of a negative rather than a positive is an odd choice, and in the english language it is usually secondary to choose to use a negative rather than a positive or neutral term. We could replace both terms with “Innocent” and “Not Innocent” couldn’t we? But for reasons I can’t articulate, it just feels wrong. Why create that confusion where there doesn’t need to be there? “Innocent” and “Guilty” are perfectly acceptable words that should be perfectly acceptable terms
“They’re not ‘innocent’ of the charges, they are ‘not guilty’ because the state didn’t prove them innocent, it was simply unable to prove its case”
This is an argument I hear most often, and honestly, I find it hard to parse. One could easily go with the “innocent/not innocent” argument above to get the same argument, yet there’s no consensus that those terms would be the same. With respect to the results, we could call it “gorp” and “norp” for all it matters, the point is that its a legal term and we can use anything we want. Whatever state we consider a defendant in when found “not guilty” we can assign to the word “innocent” or “norp” if we wanted to. The only reason why this argument exists is because people support it. There’s no objective reason, its just how everyone seems to want it. Therefore there’s no reason that this arbitrary distinction should live on. “Innocent” is as much a valid description for a defendant found “not guilty”, we shouldn’t pretend otherwise to uphold it for semantic reasons