Fundamental Principles of Criminal Law

Wilmington was a 21-year old farm laborer. Three months after his marriage to a seventeen-year-old girl named Violet, she left him and went to live with her mother. Wilmington stole a double-barrel shotgun and cartridges from his employer, sawed off the Barrow, throwing it into a brook and then bicycled over to his mother-in-law's house, where he shot and killed Violet.

He was arrested and charged with the willful murder of his wife. Wilmington claimed, he did not intend to kill, but actually wanted to win her back. He claimed that he planned to scare her by threatening to kill himself if she did not come back. While questioning her about returning, he attempted to show her the gun that he was to use to kill himself. By accident, the gun went off shooting violet in the heart.

The trial judge ruled that the case was so strong against Wilmington, that the burden of proof was on him to show that the shooting was accidental. At trial, the jury deliberated for 69 minutes Wilmington was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Wilmington argued that the trial judge misdirected the jury. The appeal judge discounted the argument using the common law precedent as stated in Foster's Crown Law 1762, which stated:

“In every charge of murder the fact of killing being first proved. All the circumstances of accident necessity or infirmity are to be satisfactorily proved by the prisoner unless they arise out of the evidence produced against him. For the law presumed the fact to have been found in malice unless the contrary appears.”

The issue brought to the House of Lords was whether the statement of law in criminal law was correct, when it said that: “If a death occurred it is presumed to be murder, unless proved otherwise.”

In articulating the ruling Lord Sank he made his famous golden thread speech:

Throughout the web of the English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen. That is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner`s guilt is subjected to the defense of insanity and subjected also to any statutory exception.”

If at the end off and on the whole of the case there is a reasonable doubt created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner, the prosecution has not made out the case, and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal.

No matter what the charge on where the trial the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained

The conviction was overturned, and Wilmington was acquitted. He was released three days before his scheduled execution date.

This case gives us the fundamental principles of criminal law:

  1. A key principle, running throughout the criminal law, is that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
  2. Another key principle in English criminal law is that the prosecution in most cases the Crown Prosecution services bears the burden of proof. It is often referred to as the golden thread running through the criminal law.
  3. The standard of proof in a criminal prosecution is beyond a reasonable doubt.

In practice, the burden and standard of proof operates in the following way:

If A poison B, and B dies, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that A killed B.

What happens if the prosecution succeeds in doing that. The jury should convict A. If the jury are sure that A did not kill B, then it is plain and simple that they should acquit A.

Now what if the jury is not sure either way whether or not a killed be, what should happen then?

In this case, jury should acquit a because the prosecution did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that a killed B

Remember, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant's guilt.

It also bears the burden of disproving any defense that the accused may raise other than in some circumstances, where the burden is reversed. Such as in the case of insanity as a defense or diminished responsibility.

If the accused raises one of these defenses, the standard of proof changes from beyond reasonable doubt to on the balance of probabilities