Legal Guilt Essay

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The principle of “legal guilt,” often contrasted to that of “factual guilt,” is the legal requirement necessary within the United States to convict someone accused of a crime. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees anyone accused of having committed a crime the right to a criminal trial—a symbol of the state’s moral authority. While the goal of a trial is to seek the truth, the process of determining guilt or innocence is predicated on issues of constitutionality, legal procedures, court rules, and the interpretation of law. Given these predicates, important distinctions are made between legal guilt and factual guilt that can give rise to a host of ethical issues regarding fairness, justice, and due process of law.

Elements of a Crime

To be found “legally guilty” of having committed a crime, three conjoined elements must exist: (1) that the defendant did in fact commit the criminal act (actus reus); (2) that the defendant did in fact possess the criminal intent (mens rea); and (3) that concurrence existed, which requires that the criminal act and mental state coexisted or occurred together.

While the criminal act (actus reus) is an essential component to a crime, the importance of determining criminal intent (mens rea) is predicated on the principle of legal guilt. To be legally convicted of a crime in a jury trial requires a unanimous decision on the part of all the jurors that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt; the standard of proof necessary for a conviction in a criminal trial. Reasonable doubt in legal proceedings is considered to be an actual or substantial doubt arising from evidence, from the facts or circumstances shown by the evidence, or from the lack of evidence.

In finding an accused guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, courts are concerned with legal guilt, despite a defendant’s factual guilt. Factual guilt is considered to exist when a defendant is in fact responsible for the offense for which one stands accused; that is, they actually committed the criminal offense. The courts, however, are concerned with proving legal guilt, which is established only when a prosecutor, representing the government, presents sufficient evidence to convince a judge, or a jury of 12, that the defendant is guilty as charged.

The Burden of Proof

In a court of law, however, not only does the state have to prove that the defendant committed the criminal act but also that the accused also possessed the guilty state of mind. Criminal intent involves establishing a defendant’s legal culpability (blameworthiness); that is, did the accused act purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. The extent, therefore, to which a person can be held criminally responsible for one’s action depends on the nature of the mental state under which one was laboring. This mental state is determined by whether one acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently, each of which is defined by law.

In this regard, incorporated within the criminal law are legal defenses that consist of evidence or arguments that can be proffered by a defendant to argue that the requisite criminal intent did not exist. These can consist of an alibi, justification, procedural defenses, and excuses. An alibi argues that a defendant could not have committed the crime given one’s distance from where the crime was committed or was with someone else (e.g., an accused was in San Francisco at the time the crime occurred in New York City). Justification is a legal defense in which the defendant admits to committing the act in question, but argues it was necessary to avoid some greater evil such as shooting someone in self-defense. An excuse is a legal defense that can be claimed due to a personal condition or circumstance at the time when the crime was committed, and therefore, the accused should not be held accountable under the law. These conditions can consist of duress, age, mistake, involuntary intoxication, provocation, diminished capacity, mental incompetence, and insanity. And last, a procedural defense argues that a defendant was discriminated against in the judicial process which denied one due process. The significance of the former three defenses underscores the concept of legal guilt. Herbert L Packer addresses these defenses by explaining that “none of these requirements has anything to do with the factual question of whether the person did or did not engage in the conduct that is charged as the offense against him; yet favorable answers to any of them will mean that he is legally innocent,” adding that:

Wherever the competence to make adequate factual determination lies, it is apparent that only a tribunal that is aware of these guilt-defeating doctrines and is willing to apply them can be viewed as competent to make determinations of legal guilt. The police and the prosecutors are ruled out by lack of competence, in the first instance, and by lack of assurance of willingness, in the second. Only an impartial tribunal can be trusted to make determinations of legal as opposed to factual guilt.

For example, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley at the age of 25 in fact attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan as Reagan was exiting a hotel in Washington, D.C. Evidence of this act was viewed worldwide and is memorialized in pictures, videos, and eyewitness accounts. In addition to President Reagan being wounded, so too were a police officer, Secret Service agent, and the president’s press secretary, James Baker. However, because it was determined that Hinckley was mentally incompetent (insane) and consequently did not possess the legal culpability or criminal intent required by law, he was acquitted of the crime because the requisite legal guilt did not exist. Stated otherwise, he did not possess the necessary degree of culpability to commit the crime; legally, he was blameless.

Addressing the doctrine of legal guilt, Packer explains that “a person is not to be held guilty of a crime merely on a showing that in all probability, based upon reliable evidence, he did factually what he is said to have done.” Rather, “he is to be held guilty if and only if these factual determinations are made in procedurally regular fashion and by authorities acting within competences duly allocated to them. Furthermore, he is not to be held guilty, even though the factual determination is or might be adverse to him, if various rules designed to protect him and to safeguard the integrity of the process are not given effect.”

If such a legal argument can persuade a judge or jury that the requisite criminal culpability is absent, a defendant, while factually guilty of committing the criminal act, can be acquitted of the crime. Conversely, it can be argued that it is equally possible that one accused of a crime may be factually innocent, but can be found legally guilty. Crucial distinctions between legal guilt and factual guilt can result in someone who is in fact guilty of committing a crime being acquitted, and someone who is factually innocent of committing a crime being found legally guilty. While the goal of a criminal trial is to seek the truth and the criminal justice system strives for fairness, it is not infallible. Despite the burden of proof that lies with the prosecution to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, there are occasions given the totality of the circumstances and when no plausible legal defense exists that can lead to the wrongful conviction of a defendant, despite his or her factual innocence. While a citizen’s right to due process of law prohibits government from arbitrarily or unfairly depriving individuals of their constitutional right to life, liberty, and property, when wrongful convictions occur, such miscarriages of justice raise any number of ethical concerns, not the least of which questions whether justice was served for the defendant, the victim, and society at large.

While the principle of legal guilt is an essential component of the criminal law and underscores the guarantees of due process of law as provided in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, it can serve to absolve those factually guilty of committing a crime and even more tragically, wrongfully convict others who are factually innocent, tragically underscoring the imperfections of the criminal justice system and the human condition.


  1. Naughton, M. “Factual Innocence Versus Legal Guilt: The Need for a New Pair of Spectacles to View the Problem of Life-Sentenced Prisoners Maintaining Innocence.” Prison Service Journal, v.177 (May 2008).
  2. Packer, Herbert L. The Limits of the Criminal Sanction. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.
  3. Schmalleger, Frank. Criminal Justice Today. 12th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2012

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