actual innocence

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Actual innocence refers to a failure of proof defense arguing that the prosecution failed to prove all relevant elements of a charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt

Unlike affirmative defenses, which all argue the defendant committed the acts in question but should not be held accountable due to the circumstances, an actual innocence defense argues that the defendant never committed prohibited actions in the first place. Despite their mutually exclusive nature, the principle of alternative pleading allows a party to raise both actual innocence and affirmative defenses at trial. 

Actual innocence can also be raised on appeal, though applications of this are usually limited to scenarios where new and strongly compelling evidence towards the defendant’s innocence has appeared. Additionally, when raised on appeal, the burden of proof to show actual innocence beyond a reasonable doubt lies with the defendant.

Most habeas corpus statutes provide an actual innocence exception allowing a party claiming actual innocence to challenge their imprisonment regardless of whether the statute of limitations to appeal have run. 

[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]