The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that forms the bedrock of our modern society. Did you know that the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” was first expressed by a Medieval Catholic Cardinal?
The legal maxim of “a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” as ubiquitous as it is today, is relatively young in the grand scheme of humanities strive towards judicial fairness. The idea that the burden lies with the person making the claim was first articulated by famed Roman jurist Julius Paulus, who was prolific in the late first and mid second centuries.
Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat – “Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.”
Enter Johannes Monachus, born 1250 in Crécy-en-Ponthieu, a small town in northern France. Throughout his life, he became a renowned jurist, theologian, and canon lawyer. He was later made bishop of Arras, Cardinal, and papal legate to France. While working on a decretal of canon law for Pope Boniface VIII, he formulated the accused right’s to a trial and due process as such: item quilbetpresumitur innocens nisi probetur nocens, meaning a person is presumed innocent until guilty, the first ever utterance of the complete legal principle.
This transcendent concept of human legal rights finds its origins with the fall of man and original sin. Monachus drew upon the first “trial” of Adam by God in the Garden of Eden. He argued that even God had to first summon Adam, and an omniscient Creator presumed his innocence by asking if he had eaten of the fruit despite already knowing.
“The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.’ Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?” – Genesis 3:9-11
Thus born was the legal proverb: “Even God must give the devil his day in court.”