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Acquitted v. Innocent

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Today the Sixth Circuit issued an interesting little decision called Helms v. Zubaty that reminds us once again of the distinction between acquitted and actually innocent.

Marie Helms was upset about a local tax. She went to the office of the county Judge Executive to complain, but he was out of town. She became loud and profane, interfering with the work of others who were in the office. She refused to leave when asked, repeatedly.  Finally, she was arrested for trespass.

A jury acquitted her. Why we don't know.  Maybe they didn't like the tax, either. Perhaps they were engaging in jury nullification, just as she was engaging in civil disobedience. However, that doesn't mean she can sue the police officer for arresting her for an offense of which she was plainly guilty. The civil court didn't have to find her actually guilty of the offense, of course, and it does not say that expressly. Probable cause is sufficient.  Actual guilt is there between the lines of the opinion, though.

One time when I was in a congressional hearing on the death penalty, a witness on the other side claimed that we must accept as actually innocent every former death row inmate who has been acquitted. That is absurd.  Guilty people get acquitted sometimes. Sometimes evidence is suppressed.  Sometimes essential witnesses die or disappear. Sometimes trial judges err in the defense's favor, and the prosecution can't appeal. Sometimes juries just nullify the law.

Acquitted persons must be considered innocent for the purpose of criminal punishment by the state and only for that purpose. They can still be sued by the victims, as the O.J. case demonstrates. If they sue officials, they can lose on the basis that they were actually guilty, as this case illustrates. Most importantly, for the purpose of public policy discussions, when a first and second criminal trial reach different results we can legitimately ask whether the second trial was the miscarriage of justice, rather than the first.

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Mel Ignatow is probably the apotheosis of the guilty going free.

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