How the Presumption of Innocence Renders the Innocent Vulnerable to Wrongful Convictions

Dr. Michael Naughton
This article argues, contrary to a straightforward reading, that the presumption of
innocence and accompanying principles – the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove
its case beyond a reasonable doubt – acts in reality against the interests of those who
might be innocent at every stage of the criminal justice process. This is because the
“presumption”, in effect, renders suspects of crime passive and generally inactive whilst
the “burden” places pressure on the police and prosecution to chip away at the presumed
innocent status and construct cases that might obtain a conviction, rendering innocent
victims vulnerable to wrongful convictions. This signals that the presumption of
innocence needs to be understood in terms of the distinction between theory and reality.
As it currently works in practise the presumption does not protect against wrongful
convictions as is widely supposed. In fact, it can actually facilitate them. Alternatively,
reflecting on the investigative approach of the University of Bristol Innocence Project, it
is argued that the innocent will be better protected against wrongful conviction only
when all resources and efforts are orientated towards subjecting the evidence claimed to
indicate guilt to critical interrogation to see if it can be substantiated.

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