Proving criminal guilt is no easy task, but the burden of proof is usually on the prosecution to show that a defendant is guilty of a crime. Criminal law defines being “guilty” as having been responsible for an act that offends a law on the books. If a local, state, or federal law says you can’t steal from the little market on the corner (guess what, all of them say that), then stealing from the little market on the corner means you’re legally guilty of breaking the law.
Although this has always remained the case, law has changed markedly over time and varies by which country you reside in. For example, in the U.S. the party being prosecuted is considered innocent until proven guilty, which pushes the burden of proof towards the prosecution. In the U.K. though, the burden of proof is on the defendant in certain defamation cases. In Scotland, another verdict in addition to “guilty” and “not guilty” is “not proven.” This one is self-explanatory–the defendant’s innocence is not assumed, even though he or she is acquitted of the charges that have been levied because not enough evidence is available to discern guilt and innocence.
Many believe that laws should be self-evident, although our society seems to be getting farther and farther away from that foundation that once stood so iron-clad. This assumption was based on the similar philosophical belief that a society should be allowed to condemn the immoral actions of people who go against the wishes of the masses. If you can be condemned by your peers, then it should be obvious what you did wrong. If you can’t figure that out, then there’s a problem with the system.
The law has always struggled to find ways of resolving a person’s guilt. What are the options? In ancient times (and even in some places today), an eye for an eye seemed like the best option. If you stole, then you could lose what you own. Alternatively, your hand could be cut off in the extremest circumstances. If you murdered another, then your own life would be forfeit as well.
Nowadays, many people see things a little bit differently. Forgiveness certainly factors into some criminal proceedings. If you wronged an individual or organization, then they generally can make the decision whether or not to prosecute. Then again, if the person accused of a crime shows no remorse, he or she is more likely to feel the full weight of prosecution. Why a person committed a crime can also become a factor in the eventual punishment. There is a difference between premeditated murder and a crime of passion, as it were. Many locales also treat hate crimes differently. Then again, if you stole a piece of bread because you were hungry, the sentence might be lighter at the end of the day.
Then, there’s another important question to answer: what is the purpose of criminal prosecution? Should the result be punishment, rehabilitation, or a combination of both? Should the death penalty be on the table? Should cruel and unusual punishment be outlawed, and if so, what defines cruel and unusual punishment?
These are questions we will likely continue to struggle with in the foreseeable future.