Innocent Until Proven Guilty? New Study Looks at the Presumption of Innocence

The presumption of innocence is one of the most important principles of the modern human rights system, playing a critical role in safeguarding the rights of a person facing criminal proceedings.

The importance of appearance

The EU Directive on the presumption of innocence (EU 2016/343) specifies that competent authorities should abstain from presenting suspects or accused persons as being guilty, in court or in public.

That means the use of measures of physical restraint, such as handcuffs, glass boxes, cages and leg irons should be employed only in those cases that justify using those measures, decided according to case-specific and security reasons.

Suspects in Restraints. The Importance of Appearances: How Suspects and Accused Persons are Presented in the Courtroom, in Public and in the Media” is an EU-wide, two-year research project currently being implemented by Liberties member Rights International Spain and other partners under the coordination of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The objective of the project is to contribute to the correct implementation of the Directive through reducing the number of instances in which suspects and accused persons are presented in the public in ways that create a perception of guilt, and to contribute to a better understanding of the presumption of innocence among public officials and the general public.

Influence and perception

Within the framework of the project, Human Rights House Zagreb, project partner in Croatia, has undertaken a sociological research to probe whether different levels of restraining measures used by the police have an impact on and influence the public perception of guilt. The findings are critical to the presumption of innocence.

First, any arrest by the police results in the perception that the person is guilty. The research shows that not only does the public find people accompanied by police guilty (presence of police), but also that perceived guilt increases as more severe restraining measures are utilized and the level of force increases.

In addition, there is a positive correlation between negative traits and perception of guilt. That is, people are more likely to see a person as guilty if they ascribe negative characteristics to him/her (aggressive, dangerous). The research found that it is more likely to attach negative traits to men rather than women. People also tend to see a guilty person in stereotypical ways (e.g., wearing a hoodie equates to being a hooligan or delinquent).

The report and the infographic were done by Human Rights House Zagreb.

Read the full report.

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