Not Proven or Not Guilty?

Scotland has begun another review of its unique “Not Proven” verdict. This has the same legal meaning as “Not Guilty” but perceptions differ. Some believe that “Not Guilty” demonstrates innocence but it is only a presumption of innocence not a definite conclusion. The jury does not assess innocence. They are charged with deciding whether the prosecution have proved beyond reasonable doubt that the person is guilty.

“Not Proven” was the verdict applied by historian Philip Sugden to Seweryn Klosowski alias George Chapman in respect of the Jack the Ripper murders. It is a verdict that should also apply to nearly all of the other 333 Ripper suspects. The case against them might appear weak or non-existent but it cannot be entirely dismissed unless it was physically impossible for them to have committed the crimes. This only applies to those with independently confirmed alibis. The rest is speculation.

In 1903 when Chapman was convicted of murdering Maud Marsh most prosecutions relied on speculation and inference. Today improved forensic evidence often helps establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. There is no reliable method for confirming innocence and perhaps “Not Proven” is the correct default judgment in cases where the jury finds that the evidence is insufficient.

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