American criminal law has a deep commitment to the presumption of innocence. Yet at the same time, American criminal justice is, by international standards, extraordinarily harsh. This Article addresses this troubling state of affairs.
The Article contrasts the American approach with the approach of the inquisitorial tradition of continental Europe. Inquisitorial justice, it argues, has a less far-reaching presumption of innocence than American justice does. Yet if continental justice puts less weight on the rights of the innocent it puts more on the rights of the guilty: While its presumption of innocence is comparatively weaker, it has what can be called a strong presumption of mercy. The continental approach produces forms of criminal procedure that can shock Americans. Continental trial in particular often seems to American observers to operate on a disturbing de facto presumption of guilt; the most recent example is the high-profile trial of Amanda Knox. Yet the continental approach has contributed to the making of a significantly more humane criminal justice system than ours. Moreover, the continental approach is better suited to cope with the rise of new forms of scientific investigation. The Article pleads for a shift away from the American culture of rights for the innocent toward a greater concern with continental-style rights for the guilty. It closes with an Appendix assessing the Knox case.