“Innocent” versus “Not Guilty”

Kitsap Sun reader Joanne Meins wrote me today, asking:

I often read stories in the Kitsap Sun indicating that a suspect has pleaded “innocent” to charges in a criminal case. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think there is such a thing as pleading “innocent” in a criminal case. The suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the standard of proof in our court system is “guilty” or “not guilty.” If a case does goes to trial, the jury never comes back with a verdict of “innocent.” It’s either “guilty” or “not guilty.”

I’m not a nitpicky person, but this has been driving me crazy!! Please let me know if there is some legal reason for using “innocent” instead of “not guilty,” so I can let go of this and move on with my life…

The answer to your question, Joanne, is a precautionary measure we journalists take to ensure accuracy down the line of copy editors and proofreaders, from the first editing of the story to the last.

Long story short: We write “innocent” because if we wrote “not guilty,” there’s a chance that a copy editor reading the story — if the author has left Kitsap Sun headquarters for the night — could erase the “not” in “not guilty” on accident.

Yes, it’s not likely to happen. But if it did, you can imagine the serious correction we’d have on our hands.

The alternative is to use the word “innocent,” which, as you point out, is not necessarily a legal term, but one we view as accurate nonetheless.

I’d love to have other readers’ thoughts on this. Feel free to opine below.

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