Factual Innocence

Learn the differences between factual and legal innocence.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated January 05, 2024

Factual innocence means a person did not commit a crime. It differs from the concept of legal innocence and, depending on the state law, can be asserted in different types of legal proceedings. Below we review these distinctions and uses.

What Is Factual Innocence?

Factual innocence means just that—facts and evidence exist proving that a person accused or convicted of a crime did not or could not have committed it. Factual innocence differs from legal innocence. Legal innocence means the government did not meet its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (Innocence isn't necessarily at play in a criminal case—this is why the verdicts in a case are "guilty" or "not guilty.")

Factual innocence may come up at various stages in the criminal legal process from arrest to exoneration after a wrongful conviction. Depending on the state, proof of factual innocence may be used to:

  • overturn or vacate a wrongful conviction
  • permit compensation for exonerated individuals
  • expunge or seal arrest, conviction, or other criminal records, or
  • resolve cases of identity theft.

Based on advances in forensic science, especially in the area of DNA, most people associate factual innocence with wrongful convictions. But factual innocence claims can encompass much more.

Wrongful Convictions and Factual Innocence

Wrongful convictions happen more often than most people think. Hollywood shows us acts of corrupt government officials and prosecutors, but wrongful convictions can also result from many other factors, including false confessions, coerced pleas, eyewitness misidentification, and inaccurate forensic results.

Wrongful Convictions and Post-Conviction Remedies

Frequently, prisoners who believe that they were wrongfully convicted will seek relief through state post-conviction remedies or file writs of habeas corpus. Depending on the state's laws, these types of motions allow a prisoner to challenge their conviction based on new scientific evidence, proof of false evidence used at trial, or other challenges that establish factual innocence.

Compensation for Exonerated Individuals

Some states provide compensation for exonerated individuals. To receive compensation, typically, the court must overturn or vacate their conviction (as discussed above) and find that the person is eligible for compensation under state law. A state law might, for example, permit compensation for time spent in prison for a wrongful conviction based on "grounds consistent with innocence," a judicial declaration or finding of actual innocence, or a pardon based on grounds of innocence.

The Innocence Project

One of the most well-known justice organizations is the Innocence Project. The group works to exonerate wrongfully incarcerated individuals through DNA testing and other methods. It takes applications (mail only) from individuals who are serving their sentence after trial and appeal, and their case has physical evidence that may be tested. The Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 200 people.

Another organization—called the Innocence Network—provides a directory of additional innocence organizations dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals.

Sealing Court Records Based on Factual Innocence

In some states, innocent former defendants can petition for a finding of factual innocence and the sealing or destruction of records relating to the case. California law, for example, allows someone who was arrested or charged—but not convicted—to petition for the sealing and eventual destruction of any records of arrest. Likewise, a person whose conviction is set aside based on a factual innocence finding is entitled to the sealing of all case records. This kind of relief allows the defendant to legally state that the arrest, prosecution, or conviction never occurred and makes it less likely that anyone (such as an employer) could find out about it. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 851.8, 851.85, 851.86 (2024).)

Identity Theft Remedies and Factual Innocence

When an identity thief steals another's identity, it can wreak havoc on multiple aspects of their lives from their financial security to an incorrect criminal record. For instance, an identity thief might present another's driver's license when pulled over for a traffic offense. In these types of situations, state laws allow a person to file a motion in court to prove their factual innocence of a crime and clear up their criminal and other records marred by the identity thief.

For instance, Colorado citizens can file a court motion to receive a court order confirming that their identifying information was erroneously associated with an arrest, complaint, indictment, or conviction. The person can then take that court order to various criminal justice agencies to clear up their records. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 16-5-103 (2024).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been accused, convicted, or imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit, contact a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through possible legal avenues to clear your name and record or to seek your release from imprisonment. You might also have a basis for civil damages against the government for malicious prosecution, civil rights violation, or wrongful conviction.

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