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When a jury or judge reaches a verdict after a trial, they have two choices -- guilty or not guilty. Innocence doesn't really come up too much in the criminal justice system, which may seem strange to some.
Actual innocence is different from being found not guilty after trial. But to understand what actual innocence is, and why a new program focusing on that is important, we have to understand the prosecution process a little bit.
After police file a report, it is forwarded to prosecutors who decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to charge a crime. A prosecutor may decline to charge or even file a charge and then decide to dismiss it, or a case can proceed to a plea or trial.
When a prosecutor has proven a case at trial, the defendant is found guilty -- the prosecutor's burden of proof of guilt is beyond a reasonable doubt. When a prosecutor fails to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused is found not guilty.
A finding of not guilty can mean that the evidence was insufficient or that it was improperly obtained or that the witnesses were not believable. It does not necessarily mean that the accused is innocent. And it also means that -- even if the person was innocent -- they still had to go through the ordeal of a criminal charge and trial with all the heartache, trouble, and expense that entails. This brings us at last to the actual innocence project.
In St. Clair County, Missouri, State Attorney Brendan Kelly started a program two years ago that addresses actual innocence, allowing defendants who are innocent to make that claim and have their charges dismissed after taking a polygraph test.The Actual Innocence Claim Policy and Protocol is the only such program in the country, reports the BBC News, and it addresses a growing concern about prosecutorial over-zealousness and its impact on innocent defendants.
Kelly, the State Attorney, says, "I think it is a nightmare scenario for any prosecutor or any police officer to have investigated and prosecuted and convicted the wrong person. That strikes at our very sense of what our job is all about, which is to seek justice."
Since the policy was implemented two years ago, nine people have had their charges dropped before trial, and reportedly even the US Department of Justice is taking an interest in Kelly's work.
If you have been accused of a crime -- and regardless of whether you're guilty or innocent -- don't despair. Criminal defense attorneys all over the country help their clients get cases dismissed every day, even in the many counties without an actual innocence project. Your lawyer will help you resolve the case in the best possible way, so get help.
Consult with counsel. Many criminal defense lawyers consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your case.