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The public defender of Hadi Matar (the man who attacked Salman Rushdie), Nathaniel Barone, said

[Hadi Matar] has that constitutional right of presumed innocence

What does that mean in that context?

He will have a fair trial, but there is no doubt that he was the attacker. Who is expected to presume he is innocent?

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    You ask "by whom?", but leave unasked the question of "from what?". It must be decided not just whether Matar attacked Rushdie, but exactly what crime that is. Grievous assault? Attempted murder? Murder? (if he had died) - and no doubt many other possible charges. Aug 15 at 8:42
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    Presumption of innocence means that the prosecution cant just say at trial, "You did it, everyone knows you did it, prove you didn't, or you're going to jail" and then do nothing else but await the accused's response. No, that would be presumption of guilt. The prosecution has to prove - beyond reasonable doubt - that the accused committed the crime, the accused does not have to prove their innocence to avoid being found guilty.
    – Glen Yates
    Aug 15 at 16:27
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    While perhaps unlikely in this case, there are also considerations such as self defense (including "kill him before he kills me") and insanity; as well as possible reasons for leniency. Aug 15 at 18:54
  • Interestingly, it looks like the constitution or its amendments don't explicitly talk about presumption of innocence. Aug 16 at 2:56
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    @AndrewGrimm Yes, because I believe this part of our law predates the constitution, as it originates in English Common law from which US law is based.
    – Glen Yates
    Aug 16 at 18:03

10 Answers 10

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The court will presume that. You say

there is no doubt that he was the attacker

but the matter isn't subject to opinion. It has to be proved in court, because if there should be a tiny bit of uncertainty, or some uncertainty, or a lot of it, then the opinion "he did it" becomes "trial by media" or other euphemism.

Not just that, but Hadi Matar can plead "not guilty" to the offense as charged. The law might allow that he could be guilty of a different offense, but not what the charge is.

A theoretical scenario: Hadi Matar ran onto the stage to shout at Rushdie, but someone in the audience threw a knife. Maybe it is "obvious" to you that it didn't happen here, but a criminal trial isn't about what is obvious, but the truth.

Take another case where X commits a crime but frames Y for it, so it seems obvious to all that Y must have done it. The trial will follow a procedure, not the sway of opinion. The outcome of the trial might depend on Y showing that is was impossible to have committed the crime, but not know who X is.

So the court will presume that Hadi Matar is innocent, unless proved beyond reasonable doubt to be guilty as charged.

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It means the state has to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a court

Obviously, since you know he was the attacker, you must have been there. I hope you are doing OK and, as a material witness, you shouldn’t be talking about it.

You weren’t there? Then you don’t know anything; you’ve only read stuff and seen pictures. You can’t even be sure that the alleged attack even took place.

To obtain a conviction, the state will need to prove each of the elements of the crime(s) they decide to charge. Some of the elements may be uncontested by the defence; that is they agree that they are proven. However, at least some will be contested; the prosecution must provide sufficient evidence (witness testimony, recordings, physical evidence, expert testimony etc.) to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that the elements happened. Failure to prove any element is a failure to prove the crime.

In addition, the defendant may have a lawful excuse. Insanity seems possible = an insane person can’t tell right from wrong so lacks the mental state required of most crimes.

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    What exactly can we say about our lives with 100% certainty? Very little! What can we say about other people's lives with 100% certainty, even less? I'm reminded of the questions Neo poses Morpheus about truth in the first Matrix movie.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 15 at 13:55
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    @NeilMeyer fortunately the law doesn’t require absolute certainty- it requires beyond reasonable doubt.
    – Dale M
    Aug 15 at 21:09
  • @NeilMeyer the only thing I can say is that I exist. I can't speak of you or anything else - you might all be a figment of my imagination.
    – Trish
    Aug 16 at 15:08
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When the court case starts, and the jury sits down, they have heard exactly zero evidence against the accused. Anything they heard outside the court they have to forget. And you might think “they wouldn’t put an innocent person into court, so he is likely guilty”, but the jury has to remove any such thoughts from their minds. At the start of the trial, he is presumed innocent.

It is then the job of the prosecutor to show evidence of his guilt, and one job of the defense to show why the prosecution’s evidence is not proof of guilt, or even show evidence making him innocent.

At the end of the trial, the jury weighs up the evidence they say and decide whether the accused is proved guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” or not.

(The other job of the defense is to show that the defendant should get a lower punishment and not a harsher punishment, which is why the defense will work for defendants who will definitely be shown guilty).

But the relevant point to the question is that at the beginning of the trial the accused is presumed innocent.

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  • "The other job of the defense is to show that the defendant should get a lower punishment and not a harsher punishment, which is why the defense will work for defendants who will definitely be shown guilty" Isn't it also because they're not legally allowed to refuse a case?
    – nick012000
    Aug 16 at 11:18
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    @nick012000 of course lawyers can refuse to represent clients. The tricky part is when the defense lawyer wants to recuse himself after agreeing to represent someone. S/he needs to petition the court to do that.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 16 at 13:30
  • @RonJohn No, they can't. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cab-rank_rule
    – nick012000
    Aug 16 at 13:35
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    @nick012000 New York City hasn't been part of England in 246 years.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 16 at 14:24
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    @nick012000 - The US (Salmon Rushdie attack was in upstate NY not NYC) does not have the Cab rank rule. With the exception of public defenders assigned to an indigent client (where they need a judge's permission to change representation), lawyers in the US can freely choose not to represent clients (and where conflicts of interest are present, may be obligated to do so). See for example: avvo.com/legal-answers/…
    – dr jimbob
    Aug 16 at 14:32
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He will have a fair trial, but there is no doubt that he was the attacker. Who is expected to presume he is innocent?

First of all, how do you know he is the attacker? Did you clearly see him do it on video?

Second of all, while it may be easy to prove he was the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt, until it is proved it will not be assumed, by the jury (who will decide whether he is innocent or guilty). That is what innocent until proven guilty means - he won't be taken behind the police station and shot, or locked up for 50 years, until a jury of his peers finds that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Third of all, he is to be presumed innocent of the charges against him, no matter whether he did the act or not. He could say he's insane, he could say its insane automatism - there are countless ways he could be innocent of the charges against him, even if he physically stabbed the victim.

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    "Did you clearly see him do it on video?" - also, are you sure that the person in the video is Hadi Matar? There certainly have been cases historically when the wrong person has been detained.
    – Peteris
    Aug 15 at 13:04
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    @Peteris and, if the person in the video is Hadi Matar, is it the same Hadi Matar who is on trial?
    – phoog
    Aug 15 at 20:41
  • And does the video depict fictional events?
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 16 at 20:51
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Minnesota (since I happen to live there) has 5 degrees of assault:

  1. First Degree assault requires "bodily injury which creates a high probability of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or other serious bodily harm." (nb., this is the assault offense I suspect would be charged; attempted murder and other charges may be levied, too, but I'll stick to assault for ... concision?)
  2. Second Degree assault involves a deadly weapon and seems to require "the fracture of a body part, temporary or substantial loss or impairment to a bodily function or organ, or an injury resulting in temporary but substantial disfigurement."
  3. Third Degree assault involves "leads to substantial bodily harm" but doesn't involve a deadly weapon.
  4. Fourth Degree assault happens "when a person assaults another in the performance of their duties as a public servant" (eg., punching a police officer, even if there isn't "substantial bodily harm").
  5. Fifth Degree assault appears to be the catch-all for "anything else"; eg., punching someone in a barroom brawl.

Those are, of course, just the high-level overviews; there are specific statues that define some of those terms and put hard requirements to charge a specific assault as (eg.) 1st rather than 2nd degree.

Most crimes also have a "Mens Rea" component: the perpetrator needs to have a "guilty mind" - that they intentionally did something that they knew was illegal. My understanding is that this is what allows pleas of temporary insanity or charging crimes of passion as lesser offenses. As the Kyle Rittenhouse trial demonstrated, what many people see to be a clear example of a crime might not be due (at least in part) to the Mens Rea requirement and/or other mitigating factors. This is also why minors (especially young children) are treated differently: a 5-year-old barely has the concept that other people are actually people or that consequences can last past bedtime; it's incredibly unlikely that they can have the guilty mind necessary to commit most crimes.

Note that Mens Rea slightly more specifically means that "the defendant must be conscious of the “facts that make his conduct fit the definition of the offense.”". It's conceivable that someone might not know that (eg.) a pocket knife could be considered a deadly weapon, which might take 2nd degree assault off the table. Some statues don't have a Mens Rea component, some explicitly have one, and some seem to imply one; I'm honestly not sure where the various assault statues fall.

The US also has a "reasonable doubt" standard for conviction - this is supposed to be a very high bar, erring on the side of letting the guilty go free rather than incorrectly convicting the innocent.

And, the prosecutor needs to charge a specific crime. That is, they need to specifically charge "Assault in the First Degree"; they do, in some scenarios, have the ability to file multiple charges - in principle, they may be able to charge both first and second degree assault, and let the jury decide whether the actions in a particular case cross the threshold from 2nd to 1st.

So, at a minimum, the prosecutor in the Hadi Matar trial must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • Hadi Matar is the person who attacked Salman Rushdie
  • he did so intentionally
  • he knew that doing so was illegal (or, at least, that the action was likely to cause damage, or whatever else the statue requires him to have known)
  • and any other requirements of the specific allegations - was a deadly weapon involved, was there a high probability of death, was there serious permanent disfigurement, was there temporary disfigurement, was there permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of an organ, etc..

The "innocent until proven guilty" philosophy says that the jury (and, indeed, the criminal justice system, generally) needs to assume the answer to all of those questions is "no" unless and until the prosecution can prove the answer is "yes" beyond a reasonable doubt (with some fuzziness around setting bail and such).

Simply showing that I stabbed Frank is insufficient to prove first-degree assault. In fact, it's insufficient to prove any assault, since I might plead mitigating factors (eg., self-defense). Similarly with Hadi Matar: simply proving that he stabbed Salmon Rushdie is insufficient (though necessary) to prove assault.

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Presumption of innocence just means that before any evidence is presented, the jury and judge should presume the defendant is innocent.

If the prosecutors can't convince the jury that the defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury should deliver a verdict of not guilty. The prosecutor has the burden to change this innocence presumption to get a guilty verdict; otherwise the defense wins based on the original innocence presumption.

There is no standard that the defense has to convince the jury of the defendants innocence.

If the jury believes the defendant probably committed a crime but isn't convinced beyond reasonable doubt, the American judicial systems says the jury is obligated to return a verdict of not guilty.

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It's important to note that, when the court determines guilt or lack thereof, it is not looking solely at whether or not the defendant actually committed the act. That part of the decision appears (I repeat, appears) to be pretty cut-and-dry.

But other considerations, such as the alleged attacker's state of mind during the event, or other exceptional factors, go into determining whether the person is "guilty", even if they did commit the act for which they're being charged. The defendant may try to argue that a fatwa was issued calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, and so it was a case of extenuating circumstances; it is highly unlikely that that would help his case since fatwas have no legal weight in the U.S., but he may bring that up.

Also, attorneys for the defendant may try to establish that he was not of sound mind when he (allegedly) attacked Mr Rushdie. Of course, saying why he wasn't of sound mind will be a bit of an uphill battle, and the insanity defense isn't as successful, statistically speaking, as movies and TV might have you believe.

(Note that "innocent" doesn't mean he isn't in custody, or that other actions can't be taken against him, either. If he were to be found innocent by reason of insanity, he may well still be detained in a secure mental health facility, possibly for the rest of his life.)

It does seem like the trial will be fairly easy for the prosecution. Nonetheless, the trial is the process by which guilt is assigned. If that process does not happen, the defendant remains innocent.

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He will have a fair trial, but there is no doubt that he was the attacker.

Maybe in your mind not, but that is not how it works. The courts can only consider the evidence put before them. Of course, evidence may be disallowed for a slew of reasons. This may affect a verdict of a person regardless of whether he actually did the offense, but that is how the system works. The admission of evidence has rules that all parties are expected to abide by.

Jurors should and can only decide a verdict on what is put before them. Not on personal judgments on the person's lifestyle or any sort of morality issue. Bad people should be found not guilty if the evidence is insufficient. Good people should be found guilty if the evidence is sufficient.

It is also worth noting that a verdict of not guilty is given not one of innocent. It is entirely possible that a person did a crime the evidence was lacking and a verdict of not guilty was given. This is considered a better outcome than an innocent man found guilty. The justice system skews to this outcome as a matter of principle.

So in closing, the defense attorney may just be reminding the jurors to only consider the evidence and not let any personal judgments on the accused character influence their decision. A reminder that has to happen often. Jurors have a penchant for letting morality issues decide their decision. I guess that is just human nature though.

And just btw if the defense attorney can prove that jurors did not presume him innocent then that is ground for a mistrial. An un-partial and unbiased jury is a fundamental right and without it, you most certainly did not have a fair trial

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  • PS - I'm not familiar with the particulars of the case in question. I take a purely academic approach to the question.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 15 at 13:22
  • The particular aspect of this case that I expect spawned the question is that there were a great many witnesses who both saw the event take place, and saw the individual who is now accused be detained. As such, I'll be surprised if the prosecution encounters significant hurdles in making their case. Aug 15 at 14:48
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Who is expected to presume he is innocent?

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says:

No person shall be [...] deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;

This was originally held to apply only to the federal government, until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, adding:

nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Therefore, neither the federal government nor any state or local government is allowed to punish him without due process of law (meaning, here, a guilty verdice in a fair trial). It may, of course, prevent him from running away to avoid trial. If the judge is convinced he is likely to flee, the defendant might even be denied bail and have to wait in prison until the trial is over. (If that happens, he still has the right to attend the trial and change into a suit, so the jury doesn’t see him chained up in prison clothes.)

What private citizens may or may not do to someone accused of a crime can get complicated. Generally speaking, someone’s personal opinion (based on disclosed facts) that another person is guilty of a crime is not considered defamatory, and employers don’t need to wait for a verdict to fire someone.

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The court has to legally decide this guilt... We 'get' it, that he did it. But until the attacker has had their opportunity to provide their side of it, we reserve legal judgement of guilt in America, regardless of how 'obvious' it is they committed the crime... This is for protecting innocence in cases where the guilt is not so obvious. Or in cases where it seems the guilt is obvious, but there is actually solid evidence that the defendant is innocent.

The idea, is that no one can ever be falsely accused of a crime and punished pre-maturely... Instead, a court HAS to see the evidence to 'officially-legally' deem them guilty...

If this worked the other way around, citizens of America could be assumed guilty, and be punished for that guilt, even if they are innocent. This would be followed by that guilt denying them a day in court, where evidence of their innocence never gets revealed...

Instead, our system flips this around, and assume the innocence, and let's the evidence prove innocence or guilt through the court system.

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    This is why, in some countries, unconvicted suspects may not be fully named in public.
    – gerrit
    Aug 17 at 13:33

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