Factual Guilt vs. Legal Guilt


When people talk about “defending the innocent” or “defending the guilty” they’re talking about factual guilt — did the person do what he’s accused of doing? — rather than legal innocence or guilt — has the government proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did what he’s accused of doing (and that no defenses apply)?

The distinction is crucial to an understanding of how and why I do what I do.

Whether they did what they’re accused of or not, everybody I represent in trial is legally innocent; they remain that way unless the government can prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (either in a jury trial or with a guilty plea).

Whether my clients are factually innocent or factually guilty — whether they did what they’re accused of doing — isn’t directly relevant to their defense. Often in America factually innocent people are found guilty; more often (I devoutly hope) factually guilty people are not found guilty.

It doesn’t matter much to me whether my clients did what they’re accused of; what matters most is whether the government can prove its case against them.

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0 responses to “Factual Guilt vs. Legal Guilt”

  1. Ok, so if the defendant is actually innocent (he/she did not commit the crime) but found legally guilty (court proved that he/she did), the defendant will still perform their sentence?

  2. “more often (I devoutly hope) factually guilty people are not found guilty.” I devoutly hope that you meant it the other way around! haha!

    • No. I meant it the way that I wrote it. Please read the entire sentence again: I devoutly hope that the acquittal of a factually guilty person is a more common occurrence than the conviction of a factually innocent person.

      • Ohhhhhhh! hahaha. Got it! The grammatical structure in that paragraph was a little misleading… But thanks!

          • “Often in America factually innocent people are found guilty; more often (I devoutly hope) factually guilty people are not found guilty.”

            Are you telling me this is good english?! Really? Cus if you think so, that’s sad. Read it again yourself. I have a couple of things to say to you, sir.
            1) You’re a stubborn man
            2) You just had to refuse to edit it even when 2 out of 5 people who commented on your blog said your article was “confusing” or “misleading.”
            3) When inquired, you were able to clarify yourself with fewer words with better sentence structure!

            “I devoutly hope that the acquittal of a factually guilty person is a more common occurrence than the conviction of a factually innocent person.”

            So why didn’t you use that to edit your blog?! (sign of your stubbornness)

            4) It’s not a habit for me to make a fuss out of something so trivial, but when I saw your cockiness, I just had to.
            5) You may be an excellent attorney, however, mistakes happen to everybody. And when they do happen, it’s our job to humble down and accept it as our mistake — and not be a jerk about it.

            Good day!

          • Yes, this is good English, in exactly the way that “You may be an excellent attorney, however, mistakes happen…” is not. Parentheticals are tricky.

            More than five people have read this post. Two—one of whom was anonymous, started his comment with “omg,” and ended it with “lol,” and therefore does not count—have complained.

            The balance either understood my sentence structure, or misunderstood it but thought it reasonable and consistent that I hope for factually guilty people to be found not guilty (since that’s a safety margin for the factually innocent).

            I also am not writing for the very small minority of readers who have occasional trouble with my sentence structure. If everyone were able to understand me, I wouldn’t be writing up to my full potential.

            If I’m feeling benevolent I’ll clarify, as I did here, but I’m probably not going to make changes to a four-and-a-half-year-old post because a couple of people complain.

            A stubborn jerk? Okay. Toss “arrogant asshole” in there too. I’m okay with it.

  3. Mr Bennett,
    Stumbled onto your blog while trying to decipher the difference in factual guilt as opposed to legal guilt.

    Although opposed to our current form of juris prudence and the American legal system, it’s laws and execution, I find the study and reading of man made laws to be fascinating.

    I’ve misplaced the book that discussed law around the world from the viewpoint of a particular culture and the difference in justice and mercy and am amazed how different cultures perceive right and wrong.

    Thanks for your blog.
    Rodney Halley

  4. It is very sad that so many factually innocent individuals are in jail. I have a family member who has been in jail over 35 years, accused of being at the scene of a murder. He has doctor forms stating that he never could have been in the place he is accused of due to a recent surgery. Since his incarceration, he has had the only witness admit that he was told his sentence would be lighter if he went on the stand and said he saw my family member at the scene of the crime. My family member’s own brother admitted that he was the one there that night, not his brother, and still, my family member sits in a jail cell. He has been up for parole 5 times now but since he is still claiming innocence, they will not parole him. Sadly, he has no DNA in the case to use. So many innocent people are in jail and there is nothing that can be done. Their life has been taken from them by the courts. He was only 17 went he went to jail and he is now over 50 years old!!! Just because your found guilty does not mean you committed the crime. There was a Senate Bill written in PA to allow a new trial for prisoner’s who are factually innocent of the crime in which they were convicted, but it has been out there for 3 years now and still hasn’t been passed.

  5. Mr. Bennett,
    I too have found this article very interesting and like the other guy, I too stumbled upon it researching the difference between factual guilt and legal guilt. I found this to be very helpful. Thank you so much for your article. It kept me from looking through tons of websites looking for one specific answer. As for the idiot above, there is always someone like them to try and knock a good person. I understood exactly what you were saying. I saw the sophistication in it.

  6. I too, stumbled. Interesting statement which most of these good people have an issue with. Not the actual factuality of the statement! You are probably right, BUT I’d like to say I feel just as strongly about those who are factually guilty, but some attorney gets them off for technical issues…..sending the. Right back out there to do it again.

  7. The Criminal Justice System needs to be revamped as wrongful convictions are reaching epic numbers and innocent people are being convicted of crimes they did not commit. With that being said, the causes of these wrongful convictions vary and are often complex. There are too many wrongful convictions occurring and according to a report in 2013 on CNN more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated in the last 20 plus years. These cases involved people who were wrongly convicted and later exonerated after serving long terms in prison, so we must keep in mind how many cases this never happen.

    I wish that you could help me exonerate a loved one who is serving 99 years for a crime that he did not commit and his Defense Lawyer didn’t properly represent him in his case. Evidence was admitted that should not have been. It is an extremely popular case that took place in Pennsylvania in 2001. This case took place in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania as a jury trial before the Honorable Judge Thomas M. Del Ricci. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Kenneth Harold Burno Jr. in the murder trial of John Davis. Not only was his participation in this murder fabricated, but the “Black Widow” decided to take another life which was that of Kenneth H. Burno Jr. This woman scorned decided to be vindictive towards Mr. Burno and end his life after receiving a letter from Mr. Burno ending their relationship. Therefore, she implicated him in this murder turned plot and contract killing one year later after she confessed to murder in the third degree on John Davis and attempted murder on Ronald Humphrey. Once Mr. Burno cut off ties to this controlling and cold calculating murderer she decided to take his life and name him a co-conspirator in her elaborate plan to kill all her lovers to win Mr. Bruno’s love.

    • “Felicia M. Johnson” you know all too well about being scorned and vindictive don’t you? You must present facts concerning Kenneth H. Burno Jr case. Kenneth didn’t get locked up until Dec., 2002. He’s currently serving double life at SCI Houtzdale.

      Mr. Burno isn’t to fully blame as he only followed in his father’s footsteps. If he would have respected his marriage and wife, he wouldn’t have even been caught up in that situation with his mistress.

      I tried countless times to tell him to leave those vindictive, scorned, trifling women alone because ALL of them have a motive that’s not good.

      I’ll admit his trial attorney sold him to the state but all in all it was the life he chose as well as the people he dealt with that caused him to be where he is now.

  8. Felicia M. Johnson, you’d know first hand what being vindictive and scorned is all about. I’v e followed Kenneth Burno’s {NOT Bruno} case for many years. His vanity as well as following in his father’s footsteps by “running” women got him caught up. There’s a price to pay when you dishonor your marital vows.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno was sold to the state by his trial attorney.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno isn’t a murderer.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno had his mind set on superficiality.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno has been wrongfully convicted.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno was misrepresented by the media and his attorney.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno cared deeply for Vernell Jones.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno after 14 years of incarceration has become institutionalized.
    Fact: Kenneth Burno was not represented by a jury of his peers.

    No murder weapon was found nor any DNA, hair follicles, blood, etc. of Kenneth Burno was found at the crime scene.

    Kenneth Burno received a double-life sentence due to the negligence of his trial attorney, which was recently removed from all of his current cases by a federal judge. This case needs to be reopened and re-examined.

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