An acquittal is a formal acknowledgement that the prosecutor in a criminal case failed to prove the accused was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. While a jury may find the defendant “not guilty,” an acquittal does not necessarily prove the defendant’s innocence. Because of this, a person acquitted in a criminal court may still be sued in a civil court, where the burden of proof is much less stringent. To explore this concept, consider the following acquittal definition.
Definition of Acquittal
- Judgment, as by judge or jury, that a defendant is not guilty
- To release or discharge from a fault or crime
- Being found or proved not guilty
1400-50 late Middle English a+(c)+quitaille
Examples of Criminal Trials Ending in Acquittal
Over the years in the United States, many people have been accused of heinous crimes, gone to trial, and been acquitted, or found not guilty. Modern technology has enabled the public to keep up with these cases around the clock, in some cases viewing the live or pre-recorded televised trial.
In what was perhaps the most widely viewed trial in American history, retired professional football star O.J. Simpson faced two counts of murder following the violent deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. The 8-month trial began in November 1994, and ended on October 3, 1995, when the jury acquitted Simpson.
In this case, renowned defense attorney Johnnie Cochran successfully instilled a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors about the integrity of the DNA evidence submitted, as well as other issues, such as an ill-fitting glove that led to the famous quote turned pop culture motto, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Because an acquittal is not proof of a defendant’s innocence, but rather a lack of irrefutable proof of guilt, O.J. Simpson was later sued for $40 million by the victims’ families in civil court. In the civil case, every member of the jury found a preponderance of evidence, which is the burden of proof in civil cases, that Simpson was liable for damages for wrongful death.
Casey Anthony, accused of the 2008 murder of her 2-year old daughter, Caylee, was charged with capital murder, aggravated child abuse, aggravated manslaughter of a child, and four counts of providing false information to law enforcement. In a trial that began on May 24, and ended on July 5, 2011, the jury returned a mixed verdict:
- Count 1 – First Degree Murder – Not Guilty (acquittal)
- Count 2 – Aggravated Child Abuse – Not Guilty (acquittal)
- Count 3 – Aggravated Manslaughter of a Child – Not Guilty (acquittal)
- Counts 4, 5, 6, and 7 – Providing False Information to Law Enforcement – Guilty
This is one example of how some charges in a trial may be issued a judgment of acquittal, while others in the same trial receive a guilty verdict.
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain in a Florida neighborhood, was accused of murdering 17-year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Charged with second-degree murder, Zimmerman stood trial from June 10, through July 13, 2013. For jurors to convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, or of a lesser charge of manslaughter, the prosecution had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman intentionally killed Martin out of spite, hatred, or evil intent. In the end, jurors found George Zimmerman not guilty.
Motion for Judgment of Acquittal
A motion for judgment of acquittal is a request for the trial judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that whatever evidence presented at trial was insufficient for a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Even when someone accused of a crime has requested a jury trial, he or she can, with a motion for judgment of acquittal, take the case back from the jury to be decided by the trial judge. Such a motion is made after the prosecution has presented its case.
When considering such a motion, the trial judge must review all the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution; in other words, giving the prosecution the benefit of the doubt. In contemplating the evidence in this light, the court decides whether any reasonable person might conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty.
If the judge grants a motion for judgment of acquittal, the defendant is acquitted, and double jeopardy prevents the state from bring the same charges again, even if it is later found that the court made a mistake in this judgment. The court may, at its discretion, grant a judgment of acquittal on certain charges, while sending lesser charges to the jury.
When a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal May be Filed
A motion for judgment of acquittal may be filed at any of the following stages of trial:
- Immediately after the prosecution has finished presenting its case
- After the defense has presented its case
- Within certain time limits after a jury has returned a guilty verdict, or the jury has been discharged by the judge, whichever is later
In most cases, the motion for judgment of acquittal is made immediately after the prosecution rests its case. While this motion may be filed after the verdict, the consequences are different. In federal and most state cases, the prosecution may appeal a post-verdict judgment of acquittal. No such appeal is allowed when the judgment is entered before a jury verdict.
Making a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal
The making of a motion for judgment of acquittal is often done orally as soon as the prosecution rests its case, and the jury has been sent out of the courtroom for deliberations. In the event a key legal question is to be considered, or there is solid legal authority supporting a judgment of acquittal, it may be best to file a brief written motion. The written motion generally does not need to be filed by in the office of the court clerk, but can be given to the judge prior to orally discussing the motion.
Motion for Directed Verdict
The civil court equivalent to a motion for judgment of acquittal, a motion for directed verdict requests that the judge in a civil lawsuit order the jury to return a particular verdict. As in the judgment of acquittal, the judge has a responsibility to consider all evidence presented prior to the motion for directed verdict in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, or the party that did not make the motion, before deciding whether the defendant’s liability has been proven by preponderance of the evidence. The judge may order a directed verdict to particular issues, or to the entire case.
Judgment of Acquittal
In the case of a motion for judgment of acquittal filed after a guilty verdict, the court has the option of setting aside the verdict and entering an acquittal. If the jury fails to reach a verdict at all, referred to as a “hung” or “deadlocked” jury, the court may, of its own accord, enter a judgment of acquittal.
In a case tried by the court rather than a jury, the judge has more latitude in granting a motion for judgment of acquittal. Whether at the close of the prosecution’s case, or after all the evidence has been presented by both sides, if the judge has a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, he or she can enter a judgment of acquittal.
Difference Between a Civil and Criminal Case
Civil and criminal cases are two very different parts of the same legal system. While criminal cases involve the committing of crimes found in state and federal statutes, criminal cases involve disputes between private individuals, businesses, and other entities who want to collect monetary damages, or money owed. There are a number of differences in the handling and results of these types of court cases.
|Offense Type||Offense against another individual or entity||Offense against the state, or society|
|Standard of Proof||Preponderance of the evidence||Beyond a reasonable doubt|
|Penalty||Monetary damages; possession of property||Jail time; fines; probation|
|Attorney||No right to legal representation, must hire own attorney||Right to legal representation, which is provided free of charge to those who cannot afford it|
|Motion to End the Case||Motion for Directed Verdict, or Motion for Summary Judgment||Motion for Summary Judgment, or Motion for Judgment of Acquittal|
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Preponderance of the Evidence – The belief by a jury or judge that evidence presented by one party in a civil lawsuit is more convincing, or believed to be more truthful, than that presented by the opposing party. In other words, it is more likely than not that such evidence is true.
- The Fifth Amendment and Double Jeopardy – The Fifth Amendment protects people from being tried for the same crime twice, and states that nobody can be compelled to testify against themselves.
- Lesser Charges – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
- Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.