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Legal English: “Acquittal”


Pronunciation: uh-KWIH-tull
Origin: English

An “acquittal” is a conclusion to a criminal trial in which the accused is cleared of charges and set free (if imprisoned during the proceedings). This does not necessarily mean that the accused is declared affirmatively innocent, however, only that the accused could not be proven guilty. In the U.S., a defendant accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a “reasonable doubt,” in general. An acquittal simply means that the prosecution was unable to reach this standard of proof.

Here are some example sentences that use the word:

  • “I thought that we had this trial sewn up tight, but after the shaky performance that witness just gave, I’m afraid we may see an acquittal here.”
  • “John, what are you doing here? Last I saw, you were on the news in handcuffs! I’m guessing you were acquitted, then?”
  • “If we go to trial, your defense isn’t particularly strong. I think that the chance of earning an acquittal is quite low. Accordingly, I think we should take the DA’s latest plea bargain offer and call it a day.”

After a defendant is acquitted, a concept known as “double jeopardy” comes into play. In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from trying a defendant twice for the same offense, providing, “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb …” This is known as the Double Jeopardy Clause. After a proceeding ends with an acquittal, jeopardy attaches and the defendant cannot be retried, nor can the acquittal itself be appealed.

The Constitution does not bar, however, civil actions arising out of the events that led to the charges against the defendant. For example, if a corporation is charged with violation of a law, but is acquitted, private citizens can still sue the corporation in civil court regarding damages flowing from the incident in question.

For additional legal english terms and definitions, visit our Legal English category page.

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