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The Verdict Of Guilt

The verdicts of guilty and not guilty are legally significant acts that are embedded in a complex rule-defined practice in which charges are leveled, hearings held, and judgments rendered. What is a verdict? As distinguished from the factual assumptions underlying it, a verdict is not a statement of fact that one is or is not guilty as charged. Verdicts themselves are neither true nor false, but valid or invalid. If challenged, they may be "set aside," but not because they are false. It is an essential characteristic of verdicts that they make things happen rather than state what is so. If a verdict is valid a person becomes, by virtue of that fact, either guilty or not guilty before the law. This concept of legal guilt is referred to here as "legally operative guilt."

A number of issues related to the practice of rendering verdicts of guilt will be considered. First, what conditions must be satisfied if a verdict is to be valid? Second, what does it mean to be guilty in the legally operative sense? Third, what presuppositions underlie the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt? Fourth, what functions are served by this legal practice? Finally, is there a concept of legal guilt different from that of legally operative guilt, and if so, how are the different concepts related?

Validity conditions for verdicts. There is a common understanding as to what communicative behavior in what settings constitutes a verdict. Thus, for example, persons without legal authority may state their opinions about a defendant's guilt or reach moral judgments upon the matter, but without legal authority they cannot render legal verdicts. Only when a verdict has been rendered can its validity or invalidity be considered. Verdicts must be in compliance with rules that define the conditions to be satisfied if they are to be legally operative. These rules regulate such matters as the form and substance of the verdict, the conditions in which it is arrived at, and the setting in which it is delivered. Thus, a verdict may be set aside because of uncertainty in its formulation, as when it is unclear which of two defendants charged with an offense has been found guilty; because it has been announced in the absence of the defendant; because of misconduct by those charged with rendering it; or because of a lack of evidence to support it.

The meaning of legally operative guilt. What does it mean to be guilty before the law in the legally operative sense? The verdict itself is a formal pronouncement of condemnation by an authoritative social organ. In being declared guilty, one is branded. One's status is thereby transformed into that of the legally condemned. Being thus branded, one is set apart from others and placed in a condition that requires correction. Guilt, by its very nature, calls for something to be done. Further, being legally guilty in the operative sense implies that the guilty person is properly subject to punishment. Any legal practice restricted to establishing one's liability to make reparations or restitution, or restricted to providing compensation, would differ fundamentally from the legal practice of determining guilt. None of these alternative practices necessarily implies either condemnation or the idea of conduct causing injury to society, and thus of owing society something.

Presuppositions of the practice. A number of background conditions are presupposed by a legal practice embodying the concept of guilt. These are conditions whose presence makes intelligible the practice and whose absence would reasonably cause doubt about the existence of this particular practice.

First, a verdict of guilt presupposes the belief that there is a condition of guilt logically independent of the verdict. There are facts to be determined, and they relate, of course, to a person's being in fact guilty—what shall be referred to as "factual legal guilt." As a corollary, it is also presupposed that those charged with rendering verdicts will reflect on the evidence presented to them relating to the criminal charge and will not resort to such arbitrary devices for determining guilt as flipping coins.

Second, a verdict of guilt presupposes that the person adjudged guilty is the same person charged with having committed the offense. There would be an oddity, for example, in rendering a verdict against a person who at the time of conviction, because of severe amnesia, was believed to lack any sense of continuity with the person claimed to have committed the offense. Again, society could conceivably penalize close relatives of escaped felons in order to deter escapes, but in such a practice, verdicts of guilt would not be rendered against the unfortunate relatives. Liability to suffer penalties is not equivalent to being judged guilty.

Third, the practice presupposes that individuals adjudged guilty have the capacity to comprehend the significance of the verdict and of the punishment prescribed. Verdicts have a communicative function, and among the persons addressed are those convicted of crime. Verdicts would lose their point if they were addressed to individuals who did not comprehend their significance as condemnatory and who were at a loss to understand why suffering was to be imposed upon them.

A fourth consideration, connected with this last point, is more speculative: perhaps a general commitment throughout society to the norms established by law, to the values they support, and to the legitimacy of the practice that has been established is necessary in order to determine violations and guilt. Without these elements the legal practice of finding guilt would be transformed into one in which individuals with power merely enforced their will upon others. In such circumstances the normative basis of the practice would crumble, condemnation would inevitably fall upon deaf ears, and punishment would become merely a matter of making another suffer.

Finally, the social practice embodying guilt presupposes beliefs in an established order of things, in an imbalance to that order caused by wrongdoing, in the undesirability of alienation, and in the possibility of restoration. Unlike the concepts of pollution or shame, for example, the concept of guilt arises in a world in which people conceive of guilty wrongdoing as disrupting a valued order of things. This produces instability and sets the guilty person apart from others, but nevertheless also creates a situation that may be righted by sacrificial or punitive responses. Punishment, although it has other explanations as well, in this conception is a mode of righting imbalances through exaction of a debt owed by the guilty to society. The debt, once exacted, brings about rejoinder. Given this conception, the person branded as guilty is so branded because he has set himself apart by wrongdoing. "Guilt" then adheres to the guilty like a stain and weighs like a burden, and punishment serves both to purify and relieve. Punishment as a response to guilt is thus freighted with symbolic significance, and major shifts in how it is conceived would imply transformation in the legal practice of which it and guilt are now a part.

Functions served by the practice of rendering verdicts of guilt. Practices come into existence and persist for a variety of reasons. They may also, once in existence, serve interests that were not factors leading to their genesis. The universal fascination with crime and punishment strongly suggests that deep emotional needs may be gratified by the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt. It seems clear that these needs are better served by the drama of a public trial and conviction than by the growing phenomenon of the plea bargain.

Determinations of guilt and the infliction of punishment upon the guilty convey as nothing else can that there are indeed norms in effect in society and that they are to be taken seriously. Guilt determinations allay anxiety through reassurance that one's social world is orderly and not chaotic: it is a structured space in which not everything is permitted, where there are limits to conduct, and where retribution may be expected if these limits are breached. The practice also provides reinforcement for one's hope that in this world one is not merely a helpless victim, for guilt is founded upon the idea that individuals are responsible for what they do. Moreover, judging persons to be legally guilty permits a societally approved deflection of aggressive impulses. Punishment, like war, may allow for aggression without our suffering guilt as a consequence.

Finally, life outside the law, when issues of guilt and innocence arise, is filled with complexity, ambiguity, and irresolution. It is a virtue of law to make matters neater than they are outside the law, and to make smooth the rough edges of human interaction. The law presents a drama in which one is either guilty or not guilty and in which the guilty meet with their just deserts. Real life is, of course, quite different, but the law with its relative definiteness and its institutionalized means of retribution at least partially satisfies our longing for an ideal world.

Legally operative guilt and factual legal guilt. Some might argue that legally operative guilt is the entire substance of the concept of legal guilt, for, after all, what is more closely connected with legal guilt than liability to punishment? On the other hand, jurors are asked to consider whether a person is in fact guilty before they reach a verdict of guilt. What sometimes justifies setting aside a verdict is a judgment that the evidence of guilt—factual legal guilt—is insufficient to justify the verdict. This seems to establish that we possess a concept of legal guilt that is logically independent of a verdict of guilt, for it is a concept that guides those charged with reaching a verdict. Thus, it would seem wise to acknowledge the presence of two legal concepts of guilt and to address oneself to their relationship.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGuilt - Introduction, The Verdict Of Guilt, Factual Legal Guilt, Moral And Legal Guilt, The Sense Of Guilt