What is Actual Innocence?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2020
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Actual innocence is a criminal defense through which the accused claims that he or she did not commit a crime. The accused may allege that he or she is the victim of mistaken identity or a frame-up by another party. Such a challenge may also arise during an appeals process in criminal law. Regardless of the circumstances, this is usually the most common defense put forth in criminal law cases across regions.

A claim of actual innocence differs from other criminal defenses due to the fact that the defendant maintains innocence in the commission of the crime. Any variant defense will usually necessitate the defendant admitting to the crime in question but arguing mitigating circumstances. For example, in the case of a murder charge a lawyer may argue self-defense or insanity.

Three tactics of an actual innocence defense are generally utilized by the accused. The defense may attack a witness’s credibility or memory and thus make a case for mistaken identity. A lawyer may also undermine the credibility of the individuals who investigated the crime and even accuse said individuals of fabricating evidence. The OJ Simpson trial is one renowned representative of such a frame-up defense. An accused defendant may strengthen a claim by providing an alibi for the crime as well.


The success of an actual innocence defense in criminal law differs by region. In some regions where the burden of proof is on the defense, a claim of actual innocence may be significantly more difficult to prove. Other regions, such as the United States, may only require that the defendant provide a reasonable doubt of guilt. In most regions, even if an actual innocence defense is successful, the defendant cannot use the verdict for financial compensation in civil cases.

An acquittal in most cases, however, merely results in a finding of guilty or not guilty. Validation of true actual innocence often rests on the defendant after a trail, regardless of whether a guilty verdict is reached. During appeal, a convicted defendant can petition the courts to reopen a case if new evidence — such as previously unknown DNA evidence — is uncovered indicating that the defendant did not commit the crime in question or if an error was implemented during the trial process. In such cases, the defendant can again argue actual innocence. Many of these cases have resulted in the release of wrongfully convicted prisoners and have thus led to a subsequent rise in the number of institutions dedicated to liberating the wrongfully accused.


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