By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
The presumtion of innocence
posted 20-Sep-2015  ·  
4,788 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

Whenever there is a breach of the peace, or an offense has been committed, it is the duty of both police and prosecution agencies to ascertain what did in fact transpire. A complaint is usually filed for preliminary investigation with the office of the public prosecutor to bring to trial the person or persons against whom evidence exists. The discretion vested in the investigating prosecutor is weighty. On him rests the first instance -- the determination of who should be charged in court. The purpose of preliminary investigation is to shield the innocent from senseless suits right from the start because every person is presumed innocent. The filing of an unfounded criminal information in court exposes the innocent to severe distress. Even an acquittal of the innocent will not fully bleach the dark and deep stains left by a baseless accusation for reputation once tarnished remains tarnished for a long length of time. The expense to establish innocence may also be prohibitive and can be more punishing especially to the poor and the powerless. It is only after preliminary investigation, if the investigating prosecutor has determined that a crime has probably been committed and that the person charged in the complaint is the person who probably committed it, that an “Information” or complaint is filed in court.

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"Presumption of innocence" serves to emphasize that the prosecution has the obligation to prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt and that the accused bears no burden of proof.  It is said that the presumption of innocence is in fact a legal instrument created by the French cardinal and jurist Jean Lemoine to favor the accused based on the legal inference that most people are not criminals. It is literally considered favorable evidence for the accused that automatically attaches at trial. It requires that the trier of fact, be it a juror or judge, begin with the presumption that the state is unable to support its assertion. To ensure this legal protection is maintained, a set of related rules govern the procedure of criminal trials, viz: (a) whether the crime charged was committed and whether the defendant was the person who committed the crime, the state has the entire burden of proof; (b) the defendant does not have to testify, call witnesses or present any other evidence, and if the defendant elects not to testify or present evidence, this decision cannot be used against him; (c) the judge or jury is not to draw any negative inferences from the fact the defendant has been charged with a crime and is present in court and represented by an attorney. They must decide the case solely on evidence presented during the trial.

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This right to be presumed innocent is so important in modern democraciesconstitutional monarchies  and republics that many have explicitly included it in their legal codes and constitutions: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence."  It is also a mandate of the fundamental law of the Philippines. The Constitution provides that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved". It is thus axiomatic that "an accused under our law is entitled to an acquittal unless his guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt." In fact, unless the prosecution discharges the burden of proving the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt the latter "need not even offer evidence in his behalf".

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Even when the previous Organic Act did not so provide, judicial pronouncement since 1902 had presumed an accused innocent, there being a need for his guilt being shown beyond reasonable doubt.  Absolute certainty, as pointed out a case decided in 1910, "is not demanded by the law to convict of any criminal charge but moral certainty is required, and this certainty is required as to every proposition of proof requisite to constitute the offense." In a later case, Justice Laurel explains why an accused must be set free when there is doubt on his culpability, thus: “(W)e feel that it is better to acquit a man on reasonable doubt, even though he may in reality be guilty, than to confine in the penitentiary for the rest of his natural life a person who may be innocent. . . ." It is incumbent on the prosecution then, as was so well stressed much later by our Supreme Court, "to demonstrate that culpability lies. [Defendants are] not even called upon to offer evidence on their behalf. Their freedom is forfeit only if the requisite quantum of proof necessary for conviction be in existence." 

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It is not enough that there be diligence on the part of the trial court as well as acquaintance with applicable decisions from the Supreme Court. What is indispensable is a painstaking analysis of the proof submitted. To quote from Justice Perfecto, if the evidence of record "casts a dark shadow of doubt"  and, the conviction of the accused, in the language of Justice Tuason, "rests on a slender and shaky foundation", the edifice intended to demonstrate culpability could not then stand the strain. It had to collapse. Only if the judge who presided over the trial, and the appellate tribunal, could arrive at a conclusion that the crime had been committed precisely by the person on trial under such an exacting test should the sentence be one of conviction. It is thus required that every circumstance favoring his innocence be duly taken into account. The proof against him must survive the test of reason; the strongest suspicion must not be permitted to sway judgment. The conscience must be satisfied that on the defendant could be laid the responsibility for the offense charged; that not only did he perpetrate the act but that it amounted to a crime. What is required then is moral certainty.

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CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: The presumption of innocence implies that people who are accused of a criminal act must be treated in accordance with this principle. When the circumstances require to have accused people temporarily deprived of their personal liberty they have to be separated from convicted persons, except for unusual circumstances. Defendants should normally not be shackled or kept in cages during trials or otherwise presented to the court in a manner indicating that they may be dangerous criminals. The media, moreover, should avoid news coverage undermining the presumption of innocence. Guaranteeing the presumption of innocence extends beyond the judicial system. For instance, in many countries journalistic codes of ethics state that journalists should refrain from referring to suspects as though their guilt is certain. For example, they use "suspect" or "defendant" when referring to the suspect, and use "alleged" when referring to the criminal activity that the suspect is accused of. More subtly, publication of the prosecution's case without proper defense argumentation may in practice constitute presumption of guilt. Publication of a roster of arrested suspects may constitute undeserved punishment as well, since in practice it damages the reputation of innocent suspects.

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