What is an acquittal?
In criminal law, an acquittal means that the accused is free from the charge and it occurs in a criminal case where a defendant is found not guilty by a judge or jury. This doesn’t mean the accused is innocent, it only means the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is what it means to be acquitted.
How does a jury find someone not guilty?
A suspect is entitled to due process of the law. Before a jury or judge (if it’s a bench trial) may convict a person of a crime, they must be convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
For an acquittal or “not guilty” verdict, a suspect is formally dismissed by due process. The preponderance of evidence and culpability was gathered, the accused was charged and given a formal trial. During trial, the prosecutor brings in witnesses and evidence to prove their case against the defendant to the jury or judge. The defendant may also bring in witnesses and evidence to counter the prosecution although they need not prove their innocence. Both sides are represented by an attorney.
The judge decides what evidence can be shown to the jury during a trial. The job of the judge isn’t to take sides with the prosecution or defense but rather uphold the law.
After hearing opening statements, witness examination, objections, and closing arguments, the jury deliberates (the process of deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not). In federal criminal trials, the jury must reach a decision unanimously in order for a conviction. If the evidence brought in wasn’t sufficient enough to come to a guilty verdict, it results in an acquittal.
Is there a difference between being acquitted and being found not guilty?
An acquittal is a general term for a not guilty verdict, there are differences between the two under criminal law. An acquittal is a finding by a judge or jury that the defendant in question isn’t guilty of the crime. Not guilty means that a defendant isn’t legally answerable for the crime.
In other words, all acquittals mean a not guilty verdict, but not all not guilty verdicts are acquittals.
When can a judge order an acquittal?
Even in jury trials, a judge has the ability to acquit a defendant. The motion for acquittal depends on the claim of insufficient evidence for a conviction at trial. The defense argues that no jury could possibly find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are full acquittals and partial acquittals. A defendant can ask a judge for either. A full acquittal means that after a jury or bench trial, the jury or judge finds the defendant not guilty on all charges. But, in a partial acquittal, a defendant is found not guilty of one charge, but guilty of another offense. For example, let’s say a defendant is being charged with drug possession and drug dealing. There isn’t enough evidence to move forward on a conviction on drug dealing, but there is sufficient evidence to prove drug possession, the defendant is partially acquitted.
Judges cannot grant a motion for judgement of acquittal because they feel or think the defendant is guilty. They can only consider the evidence at hand presented in trial. If evidence isn’t presented at trial, it cannot be considered (for example, if prior drug convictions weren’t presented in trial for a drug possession charge).
It is difficult to win a motion for judgement of acquittal. For starters, judges don’t want to interfere with the jury process, so there must be sparse evidence for them to step in.
If the motion for judgement of acquittal based on insufficient evidence is granted, the charges are dismissed and the defendant is free to leave. The case cannot be brought again by the prosecution because of double jeopardy, preventing a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime. The only exception is if the judge granted the motion for judgement of acquittal after the jury reached a guilty verdict. In this case, the prosecution can typically appeal.
What are the legal implications of being acquitted or found not guilty?
If the defendant is acquitted or found not guilty, (provided it isn’t a partial acquittal) all charges are dropped and the defendant is free to go (if in prison, they are released).
After an acquittal, double jeopardy guarantees:
- The defendant cannot be prosecuted for the offense.
- The defendant cannot have double convictions for the same offense.
- The defendant cannot have multiple punishments for the same offense.
The government loses its power to re-prosecute a defendant. The law says the defendant was already in jeopardy once or that “jeopardy attaches.”
What are the consequences for people who are found not guilty and those who are convicted?
Being acquitted doesn’t mean an individual’s record is expunged. In fact, acquitted individuals still have a criminal record. In order to have the record wiped clean, an acquitted individual must petition a court to have their record cleared. This process involves exorbitant court fees and can take months to years depending on the state.
For the convicted, there are direct consequences including potential jail or prison sentences, fines, court fees, and other criminal punishments a trial judge may impose.
Everything else is “collateral.” The “collateral-consequences rule” means that a defendant has no constitutional right to be made aware of collateral consequences of pleading guilty. Some of these collateral consequences include,
- The prohibition against owning or obtaining a firearm until the right is restored.
- Suspension of voting rights while in prison or on parole.
- Suspension of rights to serve on a jury.
- Ineligibility to serve in the United States armed forces without a special waiver.
- Inability to hold certain public office positions.
- Travel restrictions for probation.
- Residency restrictions for sex offenders.
If a defendant was unaware of the collateral consequences of a guilty plea, they have no right to withdraw this plea.
Why do we have trials in the first place, and how do they work?
The Founding Fathers of the United States designed the right to a jury trial using the Seventh Amendment of the Bill of Rights to protect our constitutional right to a fair trial.
There are a few elements to any fair trial including,
- Jurors must listen to witnesses and synthesize evidence with an impartial mind.
- The rules of the trial must be fair and cannot have a predetermined outcome.
- Judges must uphold the principles of the law above all else.
A jury trial ensures checks and balances. “Checks and balances” means that all branches of government have equal power and the courts can overturn laws of acts of government that violate the constitution. Therefore, a strong judicial branch is of utmost importance. Vital to a strong judicial branch is a jury trial option. The founding fathers included a jury trial in the constitution because they prevent ultimate tyranny or oppressive power exerted by the government. Jury trials allow citizens on the jury the absolute power to make the final decision and not an oppressive, tyrannical power.
Trials are a lengthy process, because they guarantee due process. There are 8 stages to a criminal trial and are as follows,
1. Voir Dire (Jury Selection)
Voir Dire is French for “to see, to say.” In this phase of the process, when a defendant is entitled to a jury trial (all felonies and some misdemeanor crimes), a jury needs to be selected. The number of jurors depends on the seriousness of the crime. During this process, any juror with a legitimate bias about a case or inability to follow the law as given by the court is excused for due cause. Each juror also has a limited number of “peremptory strikes” which are reasons to remove a juror.
This being said, the defendant can waive their right to a jury trial and elect to be tried by a bench trial with a judge.
2. Opening Statement
After a jury is selected, the trial begins with opening statements summarizing what each side believes the evidence does or does not prove and apprise the jury on what a fair verdict should be at the conclusion of the trial.
3. State’s Case in Chief
The state is now required to present its case. The state calls witnesses and introduces documents establishing the facts necessary to prove elements of the crime. The defense attorney has the opportunity to challenge each witness.
4. The Defense
The defendant isn’t required to present a case but can if it’s required to either prove innocence or prove lack of sufficient evidence. If the defense presents, the states can now cross examine any witness to challenge veracity of statements and expose biases.
5. State’s Rebuttal
If the defendant presents a case, the state has the opportunity to rebut. A rebuttal case consists of presenting evidence and witnesses contradicting what the defense presents in its case. It can’t be a recap of what was argued and it can’t expand evidence outside of the scope of what the defense admitted into evidence during their case.
6. Closing Arguments
Each side is given an opportunity to discuss the evidence presented to the jury and ask them to make a decision favorable to their case. The state has the burden of proof and makes the first presentation. Then, the defendant makes their arguments. After this, the state also has the opportunity to rebut the defendant’s arguments. All parties must confine arguments to facts only presented at the trial.
7. Jury is given instructions
After the closing arguments, the judge “charges the jury” or informs them of the law and of what they must do to reach a verdict.
After the closing arguments, the judge instructs the jurors to deliberate. Deliberations are done in private. Once a verdict is agreed upon, the jury advises the court.
Each case has 4 possible verdicts:
- Guilty as charged.
- Not guilty as charged.
- Guilty of a responsive verdict.
- Non-verdict (hung jury).