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Factual Legal Guilt

We have seen that the norms governing the practice of rendering verdicts require that those charged with the responsibility consider the evidence relevant to factual legal guilt. In our own system of criminal law a verdict of guilt is to be returned only if it is believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is indeed guilty. Although the verdict is not a statement of fact, it presupposes beliefs about the facts. This brings us to a consideration of the nature of factual legal guilt. When is a person guilty in this sense?

First, conduct is normally a prerequisite for legal guilt. This means that a person must actually commit a certain act. It is not enough for him to merely think of doing it, nor is it enough for him simply to have a status of a certain kind, such as being a member of a certain race. Second, the conduct must normally be conscious. Individuals are not guilty for what they do while asleep. Third, there must be legal wrongdoing. Even the most egregious moral wrong does not occasion legal guilt unless the wrong is also a legal one. Fourth, one must have the capacity to appreciate the significance of the norms applicable to one. Animals and infants, for example, do not have the ability to experience guilt. Finally, it is normally a prerequisite for legal guilt that there be conscious fault or culpability with respect to wrongdoing, that is, there must be a "guilty mind" (mens rea). Whatever defeats one's fair opportunity to behave otherwise than he did—typically some reasonable ignorance of fact or limitation on his freedom of action—may excuse him.

These conditions are common to most legal systems. But how do they relate to the concept of legal guilt? Are there limitations on what legal systems can do with regard to specifying conditions for guilt? Here there are logical and, arguably, moral constraints on legal practice. The law could, imaginably, impose penalties upon individuals merely because of their race. In such a case, however, it would be odd to describe the defendant as having been found guilty. Some of the above criteria, then, may be essentially connected with the concept of legal guilt, in that failure to satisfy them would imply that the concept had no application.

The connection that factual legal guilt has with our moral conceptions of guilt is less clear: moral fault is not essential for legal guilt. Nevertheless, there may be a connection between legal guilt and moral fault that is more than merely accidental. As discussed above, the legal practice of rendering verdicts of guilt has special significance. Individuals who are guilty are viewed as justifiably condemned and as having set themselves apart from the community by disregarding its basic values. To this extent, a number of the conditions for being morally guilty—among them conditions related to a fair opportunity to behave otherwise than one did—are presuppositions of legal guilt as well. On this view, a system that allowed generally for a finding of guilt in conflict with certain moral constraints would be one that used existing institutions of the criminal law in a way fundamentally at odds with certain of its basic presuppositions. Prevention and social control would replace crime and punishment as these are now understood. Even today, when legal doctrine permits conviction of those without fault, it seems that something on the order of a lie is being perpetrated. This is because such convictions create the false impression that the guilty are insufficiently committed to the community's norms, whereas in the case of those not proved to be at fault this has not been established.

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