In a comment to a recent post ("A little shifting of the burden"), Adam Poole referenced a provision of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that states a judge shall submit the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence to the jury prior to final argument (Art. 37.07(2)(a)).
He also points out a couple of other provisions that have to do with alternate jurors or jurors who die or become disabled during trial. In these provisions the code states that the jury is rendering a verdict on the guilt of innocence of the defendant.
In none of these provisions, however, does it state that the jury charge must state that the role of the jury is to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant. The provision in 37.07(2)(a) says that the judge shall "submit to the jury the issue of guilt of innocence of the defendant..."
As we should all know by now, a jury is instructed that a defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent and that the presumption of innocence alone is enough for a jury to acquit a defendant. If a defendant does indeed start out innocent, then the burden to prove each of every element of the alleged offense falls squarely on the head of the state. If the prosecutor is able to prove each and every element of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt, a jury will find the defendant guilty.
Logically it is possible to prove a positive assertion. The assertion that people are bipedal can be proven. The assertion that heating a block of ice will turn that block into water can be proven. The assertion that a certain person committed a certain crime can be proven.
But can you prove a negative assertion? It is possible to prove where you were on a certain date - can you prove where you weren't?
And that brings us to a second problem, in order to prove an assertion, you must present proof, or evidence. In order to convict a defendant, the state must present a chain of evidence that proves the defendant did what he is alleged to have done beyond all reasonable doubt.
If the state can do it, the defendant will be found guilty. If the state cannot do it, the defendant will be found not guilty.
But, if you are asking the jury to determine whether a defendant is guilty or innocent, you are placing a burden on the defendant to present some evidence that he didn't do that which he is accused of doing. And you are taking the focus away from whether the state met its burden of proof - because once the state has presented some evidence of guilt, the defendant must then present some evidence of innocence.
The verdict form asks the jury to determine whether the defendant was not guilty or guilty of the alleged offense. Not guilty is the same as not proven beyond all reasonable doubt. And that may, or may not be, a long way from innocence.
When the Code of Criminal Procedure refers to the question of guilt or innocence, the Code is looking at whether or not the state has met its burden of proof. As lawyers we understand that. When a judge tells a jury they are to rule on the guilt or innocence of a defendant the meaning of the words aren't so cut and dried.
Guilt and innocence are terms of art that mean something entirely different to attorneys in a criminal courthouse than they do to the person on the street. As the verdict is being rendered by the people on the street, the language of the charge should be geared toward the "plain" meaning of the words.
Since the jury is told they are to presume the defendant innocent, the question is not whether they think the defendant is guilty or innocent of the crime; the question is whether they think the state proved each and every element of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt.