A criminal attorney, like a criminal attorney Fairfax VA residents need, knows that the most basic principle of the criminal justice system this country is the presumption of innocence. Whether you are charged with a DUI, sexual assault, or murder, the law provides that “every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.” In any criminal trial, the burden is therefore on the prosecution to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt.”
Can You Be Punished for “Taking the Fifth”?
It is important to understand how the burden of proof works in a criminal trial. If you are accused of a crime, you are not obligated to present any evidence in your defense. Of course, it may benefit you to do so, depending on the circumstances of the case. But at no point can a judge or jury demand that you “prove” you did not commit a crime. Aside from the fact it is difficult to prove a negative, it violates the plain language of the law, which presumes the defendant’s innocence.
Among other things, the presumption of innocence means that a judge or jury cannot infer your guilt based on your refusal to testify at trial. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “Taking the Fifth,” a reference to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment states, in part, that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In other words, you do not have to say anything at your own trial.
Jury Instruction and the Fifth Amendment
Trial court judges have a legal responsibility to make sure that all jurors understand and apply the presumption of innocence. State court rules explicitly state that a judge must ask potential jurors if they “understand and accept” the presumption of innocence and agree not to hold a defendant’s refusal to testify against him.
If a judge does not give such an instruction, it may be grounds for reversing a conviction. For example, during the jury selection for a criminal trial, also referred to as voir dire, not only do the defense attorney and prosecutors ask potential jurors question to determine if they qualify to sit on the jury, but the trial judge may also ask questions. One of the questions a judge asks the jury is if the understand and accept the presumption of innocence. This is to make sure the jury understands that a defendant not only is presumed innocence until proven guilty, but that they have the right to not testify at their trial.
Get Help from a Criminal Defense Attorney
The presumption of innocence is not a legal technicality. It is an essential means of ensuring your right to due process under law. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can help make sure the courts respect your basic constitutional rights and that the burden of proof at trial is on the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of the crime they are accusing you of. The burden is not on you to prove that you are innocent of the crime.
Contact a criminal defense attorney today if you have been charged with a crime and need immediate legal assistance.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Dave Albo Attorney for their insight into criminal defense.