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Understanding Actual Innocence | LegalMatch Law Library

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What is Actual Innocence?

An actual innocence claim is an appeal using new evidence that was not available at the time of a defendant’s original trial. The purpose of the claim is to question the confidence of the original jury’s verdict. A person accused of committing a criminal act is considered innocent until proven guilty.

The individual can plead not guilty, no contest, or guilty to the crime. If a person is found guilty after a trial, they are sentenced to a jail or prison time and/or a fine, unless they can successful prove actual innocence.

Can New Evidence Be Presented During Trial?

New evidence may be introduced during a criminal trial and all of the evidence does not have to presented in discovery prior to the start of the trial. Each party is supposed to reveal all of the evidence that they have to the other side before the trial has begun.

If the party wants to introduce new evidence during trial they have to ask the court for permission to bring in the new evidence and the judge will either allow the evidence or determine that the evidence will be prejudicial to the other party if presented.

When Can I Assert Actual Innocence?

There are two situations where a defendant can use this defense after the trial:

  • The defendant did not commit the crime they are convicted of committing or witnesses mistakenly identified the defendant; and/or
  • The defendant not engage in any criminal act and there is evidence to prove the original criminal allegation was false

How Can Actual Innocence Be Established?

It can be established in a few basic ways:

  • Bare claim;
  • Constitutional error;
  • The prosecution did not proof beyond reasonable doubt; and/or
  • Evidence that causes doubt in the prosecution’s arguments.

What Does “Standard of Proof” Mean in a Criminal Trial?

In a criminal trial, the “Standard of Proof” refers to the level of certainty with which the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilty. The standard of proof in all criminal trial is known as "beyond a reasonable doubt." This means that the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt to the point where there is no doubt that they committed the crime in question.

To prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt means that all possible doubts about the defendant’s guilt have been removed based on the evidence. If any doubts remain about the defendant’s guilt, they cannot be found guilty. 
Beyond a reasonable doubt is a much higher standard of proof than the one applied in most civil cases. In civil cases, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence”- which means that a person can be held liable only if it is “more likely than not” that they violated the law. 

What is a Bare Claim?

A bare claim involves showing hard evidence that casts reasonable doubt on the conviction. This includes new DNA evidence. The new evidence could not have been available to the court at the time of trial, which is why it was not presented at the original trial.

What Does Constitutional Error Mean?

Constitutional error refers to gross mistakes being made during the trial. These mistakes prevented evidence from being introduced that could have proved the defendant’s innocence. For example, there could have been suppressed evidence or witnesses who could have changed the outcome of the case. If the prosecution violates criminal procedure rules, it could lead to a mistrial or other serious errors.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

A criminal lawyer will be able to advise and counsel anyone who is facing the criminal justice system and advise you of all the available defenses you may have available to prove actual innocence. If the prosecution violates criminal procedure rules, it could lead to a mistrial or other serious errors.

Photo of page author Ki Akhbari

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 02-12-2018 03:10 PM PST

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