Being on trial does not mean a person is guilty

Many people think that if a person is on trial, they must have done it. They also think that if the state is going to the trouble of trying a case, they must have the goods on the defendant. These are false assumptions, and also opposite of what the legal system must assume when someone is on trial. The legal system, and lawyers in particular, are taught to assume a person is innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes that gets lost, so I thought the following case would show how that happens and why it is so important to always remember our system is based on the premise that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
In the recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case, South Carolina v. Karl Ryan Lane (Appellate Case No. 2012-207787), this concept is shown indirectly. In that case, the defendant is charged with burglary in the 1st degree. He was charged with breaking into a house and stealing guns from a gun safe during the daytime, while the owners were away.
The state put up circumstantial evidence in the case such as a neighbor who saw a car like one the defendant sometimes drove at the victim’s house; testimony that the defendant drove a car like the one described by the neighbor on the day of the theft; a piece of paper was found on the driveway, after the police had originally searched for clues, which belonged to the defendant; and testimony that the defendant did not want to talk to the police after the theft and asked someone to lie for him about where he was at the time of the crime.
The defendant asked for a directed verdict after the state rested its case during the original trial. The judge denied that motion and refused to charge the jury on the circumstantial evidence instruction he requested. That means that the judge refused to dismiss the case after hearing all the evidence against the defendant, and wouldn’t tell the jury about a specific part of the circumstantial evidence rule that the defendant wanted them to hear.
The appeals court found that the original court had erred in not doing either of those things as a matter of law. Plainly stated, the judge should have dismissed the case because the state could not prove an element of the case. What element? The “who” of who did it. According to well settled law, the prosecutor must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In South Carolina the law is that “the trial court should grant a directed verdict when the evidence merely raises a suspicion that the defendant is guilty” (State v. Odems, 395 S.C. 582, 586, (2011)).
It is a key point to remember that they must prove who did it beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence that was presented did show with some circumstantial evidence that he might have done it, but they must prove he did do it beyond a reasonable doubt. Since there was some doubt, and definitely no witnesses who saw him do anything, the judge should have thrown it out.
I hope this has clarified this point of law for some of you, and if you have any questions or legal issues, please do not hesitate to call me at the Courtney Law Firm, at 843-822-9800.

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