The drama of guilt is enacted upon a wider stage than that set by law. Betraying a friend, lying subtly to oneself, or perhaps even telling an injurious truth to another are among the many types of conduct that may give rise to some guilt—but not necessarily to legal guilt. The subject of this article is legal guilt. But because this legal concept is arguably weighted with moral significance, the relationship between it and moral guilt is also addressed.
The concept of legal guilt has a circumscribed role, not only within life but within the law itself. Judgments of guilt are neither to be identified with, nor implied by, judgments of invalidity or judgments of civil liability. A marriage or a will may be found invalid; this implies nothing about one's guilt in failing to satisfy the conditions required for a valid marriage or will. A judgment in a civil action in favor of a plaintiff and against a defendant does not by itself, even if the defendant has been found to be at fault, imply anything about the defendant's guilt. The legal concept of guilt is restricted to the criminal law, and it is within this area of law that verdicts of guilt are rendered. Consideration of this practice of rendering verdicts is essential if one is to grasp the nature of legal guilt.