Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Not guilty versus innocent

By , Columbian Editor
Published:
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Lou Brancaccio
Lou Brancaccio Photo Gallery

Back in the good ol’ days, many newspapers had a rule when it came to reporting “not guilty” findings:

Use the word “innocent.”

No, it wasn’t because of some deep, philosophical reasoning or some sense that “innocent” sounded better. It was, frankly, quite practical:

We were afraid we would screw it up.

The AP Stylebook — the bible on what to do in the newsroom — was clear on this.

“Use innocent, rather than not guilty, in describing a jury’s verdict, to guard against the word not being dropped inadvertently.”

If a reporter or editor — moving faster than they should — switched “not guilty” to “guilty” … well, that would not be pretty.

So instead we used “innocent.”

I thought of this old newspaper rule after we reported on two guys who were found guilty years ago of rape but now had had the charges dismissed.

So they’re innocent, right? Or are they not guilty? Is there a difference?

• o o

Not guilty, innocent, what’s the big deal? No one in the newspaper business really paid much attention. It was just a nuance of definition.

Then came O.J. You know, the guy who sliced up a couple of people and got off free back in 1995.

I was working in Santa Monica, Calif. at the time. Our paper worked out a plan on how our front page would look. A huge shot of O.J. with the decision of the jury.

If he was found guilty, no problem. The word “Guilty” would be the headline. But what if he was acquitted?

That pesky AP rule said we’d have to say “Innocent.”

I thought about it for two seconds. My conclusion? Damn the AP rule. Use “Not Guilty.”

But why?

Put simply, “innocent” means you didn’t do something. “Not guilty” is a legal term that means there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.

You see it now, right? There are plenty of people who are found “not guilty” but are far from innocent.

O.J. was the perfect example.

• o o

So back to our local case. Two guys convicted of rape years ago are now free and clear. It happened primarily because DNA evidence found on the victim could not be matched to them.

Not guilty. Fair enough. Could they be innocent as well? Sure. But the only thing we’re certain of is there wasn’t enough evidence to maintain the conviction.

• o o

Almost 10 years after the O.J. case — in 2004 — AP updated its “innocent, not guilty” guideline.

“In court cases, plea situations and trials, not guilty is preferable to innocent, because it is more precise legally.”

Better late than never.

Hey, we live in a world of words. And they’re important!

Just ask Aristophanes.

“By words the mind is winged.”

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or lou.brancaccio@columbian.com.

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