…isn’t what we always want it to be…

“We find, in the rules laid down by the greatest English Judges, who have been the brightest of mankind; We are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer. The reason is, because it’s of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in the world, that all of them cannot be punished; and many times they happen in such a manner, that it is not of much consequence to the public, whether they are punished or not. But when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, it is immaterial to me, whether I behave well or ill; for virtue itself, is no security. And if such a sentiment as this, should take place in the mind of the subject, there would be an end to all security what so ever.”

~ John Adams, Adams’ Argument for the Defense in the case of Rex v. Wemms: Suffolk Superior Court, Boston, 3-4 December, 1770


“Innocent until proven guilty” is quite possibly the one phrase that most people believe defines the American judicial system.  It’s also still, to this day, one of the hardest aspects of our judicial process to truly understand unless you happen to be a lawyer or have served on a jury.  The idea of the presumption of innocence in the American Court system predates the Founding Fathers and the Revolution.  In fact, it was an element of English Common Law that was so commonly accepted by the time the Revolution rolled around, that the specific idea of “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t even written into the Bill of Rights.  As part of the preexisting judicial framework, the Founders treated it basically as a given, and instead specified protections to enhance it.  Of all the Founders, Adams, as a one-time trial lawyer, was probably the most familiar with its nuances.  It was Adams who had successfully defended the extremely unpopular British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre because he firmly believed in the presumption of innocence as the bedrock of American law.  It was a difficult case, and he was publicly reviled by many for handling it.  But he took and won the case anyways.

Why?  Why is it so vitally important to our nation that our basic justice system essentially allow people to who may be guilty to go free?  Because we believe in liberty above all else.  As Adams so rightly put it, it is far better to let many guilty people go free than to jail one innocent person (yes, innocent people still do go to jail here, but its a worthy goal).  The other reason is that our justice system is built in and on laws created by us and our representatives.  Lacking an omniscient person to review all cases, justice dispensed by our courts cannot and never will be perfect.  Basically, our justice system is not blind.  How could it be?  It is shaded and shaped by the experiences and insights jurors and judges and lawyers and even the public bring to the cases at hand.  It’s imperfect.  And it is because of this imperfect nature that the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is essential.  Our court system can only dispense justice under the law.  Some days justice under the law is not the same as true justice.  Some days it is.  And as difficult as that can be to accept during any given case, it’s what makes our judicial system as just as any system can be.  You can call it unfair, but as for me, I’m with Adams.


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

John Adams, Adams’ Argument for the Defense in the case of Rex v. Wemms: Suffolk Superior Court, Boston, 3-4 December, 1770 (emphasis added by me)


Electronic Text Courtesy of the US National Archives

Leave a Comment ↓

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: