Not proven

Not proven

Not proven is a verdict available to a court in Scotland.

Under Scots law, a criminal trial may end in one of three verdicts: one of conviction ("proven") and two of acquittal ("not proven" and "not guilty"). Historically, the two verdicts available to Scots juries were that the case had been "proven" or "not proven". However in a dramatic case in 1728 the jury asserted "its ancient right" to bring in a "not guilty" verdict even when the facts of the case were proven (see jury nullification). As the "not guilty" verdict gained wide acceptance amongst Scots juries, Scots began to use "not guilty" in cases where the jury felt the "not proven" verdict did not adequately express the innocence of the defendant. Shrewd defence then further encouraged this interpretation in order to persuade juries unwilling to bring in a "not guilty" verdict that the "not proven" could be brought in as a lesser or "third verdict".

The result is the modern perception that the "not proven" verdict is an acquittal used when the judge or jury does not have enough evidence to convict but is not sufficiently convinced of the defendant's innocence to bring in a "not guilty" verdict. Essentially, the judge or jury is unconvinced that the suspect is innocent, but has insufficient evidence to the contrary. In popular parlance, this verdict is sometimes jokingly referred to as "not guilty and don't do it again".[1]

Out of the country, the "not proven" verdict may be referred to as the Scottish verdict, and in Scotland itself it may be referred to colloquially as the bastard verdict,[2] which was a term coined by Sir Walter Scott, who was sheriff in the court of Selkirk.



The not proven verdict was established in Scots law by 1728 (since then juries have been able to pass a not guilty verdict) but scholars dispute its origins.

On one account, advanced two hundred years ago by the historians Hume and Arnot,[disambiguation needed ] the third and distinctively Scottish verdict was rooted in religious oppression. The Crown persecuted the Covenanters but popular support made it impossible to convict them in a jury trial. To pare the power of the jury, the Scottish judges began restricting the jury's role: no longer would the jury announce whether the defendant was "guilty" or "not guilty"; instead it would decide whether specific factual allegations were "proven" or "not proven"; and the judge would then decide whether to convict. Some historians, however, such as Ian Douglas Willock, have rejected the traditional account.[citation needed]

Not guilty

In a notable trial in 1728, a defence lawyer (Robert Dundas) persuaded a jury to reassert its ancient right of acquitting, of finding a defendant "not guilty". The case involved Carnegie of Finhaven who had accidentally killed the Earl of Strathmore. The law (as it stood) required the jury merely to look at the facts and pass a verdict of "proven" or "not proven" depending on whether they believed the facts proved the defendant had killed the Earl. As the defendant had undoubtedly killed the Earl, if the jury brought in a "proven" they would in effect cause this innocent man to hang. To avert this injustice, the jury decided to assert what it believed to be their "ancient right" to judge the whole case and not just the facts, and brought in the verdict of "not guilty".

The (re)introduction of the "not guilty" verdict was part of a wider movement during the 16th and 17th century which saw a gradual increase in the power of juries, such as the trial of William Penn in 1670, in which an English jury first gained the right to pass a verdict contrary to the law (known as jury nullification), and the trial of John Peter Zenger in New York in 1735 in which jury nullification is credited with establishing freedom of the press as firm right in what would become the United States.

Although jurors continued to use both "not guilty and "not proven", jurors tended to favour the "not guilty" verdict over the "not proven" and the interpretation changed.


In recent years there have been repeated calls for reform, most arguing for a move to only two verdicts. However there are several issues and no consensus:

  • Many favour the "proven" verdict as it directs the jury to look at the evidence and to err on the side of the defendant if there is any doubt.
  • Because the "not proven" verdict carries with it an implication of guilt but no formal conviction, the defendant is legally innocent but often seen as morally guilty without the option of a retrial to clear their name.
  • Many Scottish jurors (through TV etc.) are more familiar with the English/US verdicts of "guilty"/"not guilty" than "proven"/"not guilty"/"not proven".

Use in other jurisdictions

The Scottish verdict has not been permanently adopted outside its home country, but it was sometimes used in colonial Canada, especially by some judges in southwestern Ontario. Its most famous use outside of Scottish law came when Senator Arlen Specter tried to vote "not proven" on an article of impeachment of Bill Clinton[3] (see Lewinsky scandal -- his votes on the two articles in question were recorded as "not guilty"), and when, at the O.J. Simpson murder case, various reformers, including Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman's father, pushed for a change to "not proven" because of what they felt was an incorrect presumption of innocence on the part of Simpson.[4]

A recent proposal to introduce the not proven verdict into the United States is:

  • Samuel Bray, "Not Proven: Introducing a Third Verdict", 72 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1299 (2005).

Analogy to science

The "not proven" verdict has been used in popular writing[citation needed] (as by Carl Sagan) as a metaphor for the operation of the scientific method, in which conclusions are never absolutely certain, but the most that can be said about a theory is what the preponderance of the evidence suggests.


  1. ^ Albert Borowitz: Blood & Ink, Kent State University Press, 2002, ISBN 0873386930, p 164
  2. ^ "Bastard Verdict"
  3. ^ Specter, Arlen (12 February 1999). "Sen. Specter's closed-door impeachment statement". CNN. Retrieved 2008-03-13. "My position in the matter is that the case has not been proved. I have gone back to Scottish law where there are three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proved. I am not prepared to say on this record that President Clinton is not guilty. But I am certainly not prepared to say that he is guilty. There are precedents for a Senator voting present. I hope that I will be accorded the opportunity to vote not proved in this case. [...] But on this record, the proofs are not present. Juries in criminal cases under the laws of Scotland have three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, not proven. Given the option in this trial, I suspect that many Senators would choose 'not proven' instead of 'not guilty'. That is my verdict: not proven. The President has dodged perjury by calculated evasion and poor interrogation. Obstruction of justice fails by gaps in the proofs." 
  4. ^ Public Broadcasting "The O.J. Verdict"

See also


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • not proven — the verdict in a Scottish criminal trial that amounts to an acquittal but that is not the same as the verdict of not guilty. In the 17th century, practice developed such that the jury found facts alleged by the prosecution either proven or not… …   Law dictionary

  • Not proven — Proven Prov en, p. p. or a. Proved. Accusations firmly proven in his mind. Thackeray. [1913 Webster] Of this which was the principal charge, and was generally believed to beproven, he was acquitted. Jowett (Thucyd. ). [1913 Webster] {Not proven}… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • not proven — adjective see not proved * * * not ˈproven idiom (in Scottish law) a ↑verdict (= decision) at a trial that there is not enough evidence to show that sb is guilty or innocent, and that they must be set free Main entry: ↑proven …   Useful english dictionary

  • not proven Scots Law — a verdict that there is insufficient evidence to establish guilt or innocence. → prove …   English new terms dictionary

  • not proven — ➡ juries * * * …   Universalium

  • not proven — A form of Scotch verdict which acquitted the defendant of the charge against him, but left a suspicion upon him …   Ballentine's law dictionary

  • Proven — Prov en, p. p. or a. Proved. Accusations firmly proven in his mind. Thackeray. [1913 Webster] Of this which was the principal charge, and was generally believed to beproven, he was acquitted. Jowett (Thucyd. ). [1913 Webster] {Not proven} (Scots… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • not guilty — n 1: a plea by a criminal defendant who intends to contest the charges compare guilty, nolo contendere ◇ Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, if a defendant refuses to plead or if the defendant is a corporation that fails to appear the… …   Law dictionary

  • proven — proved, proven The two forms relate to two different verbs derived from Old French prover (ultimately from Latin probare). In standard BrE, proved is the normal past tense and past participle of the verb prove (They proved their point / Their… …   Modern English usage

  • proven — 1 adjective 1 (usually before noun) tested and shown to be true: a woman of proven ability 2 not proven an expression used in Scottish law when a court cannot decide definitely that someone is guilty of a crime 2 especially AmE a past participle… …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

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