Innocence Unmodified

39 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2010

See all articles by Emily Hughes

Emily Hughes

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: October 5, 2010


The Innocence Movement has unwittingly participated in the construction of a binary between “actual” and “legal” innocence. Because the Innocence Movement has focused on defendants who did not commit the actions underlying their convictions, courts, lawyers, and the larger society have come to believe that a person is wrongly convicted of a crime only if the person is “actually” innocent. This perception overlooks the fact that a person can be wrongly convicted if their constitutional rights were violated in the process of obtaining the conviction. As such, the Innocence Movement devalues “legal” innocence and the constitutional values that underlie a broader conception of innocence. In order to affirm the importance of those constitutional values, this Article argues for the need to reclaim an understanding of innocence unmodified by qualifiers such as “actual” or “legal.” Part I explains how the concept of “actual” innocence has played a pivotal role in the development of the Innocence Movement. Part II examines innocence unmodified in the context of trials. It explains that one reason to protect innocence unmodified is because the Supreme Court has not yet held that “actual” innocence alone is enough to reverse a wrongful conviction; constitutional claims underlying an “actual” innocence claim, working together, are necessary to achieve justice. Part III explores innocence unmodified in the context of guilty pleas. It reveals the degree to which the Court has itself reduced innocence to a binary — prioritizing “actual” innocence over fundamental constitutional protections for all people, including people who might be wrongly convicted if the courts do not safeguard their constitutional rights. The Article concludes that a modified conception of innocence dilutes the constitutional core that protects us all — innocent or guilty alike.

Suggested Citation

Hughes, Emily, Innocence Unmodified (October 5, 2010). North Carolina Law Review, Forthcoming, Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-10-04, Available at SSRN:

Emily Hughes (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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