After spending 680 days in jail awaiting trial on murder and robbery charges, an Oklahoma City man was finally acquitted late last month.
Marco Raymond Butterfield, 22, was arrested following the robbery and shooting of a 27-year-old man outside a barber shop in northwest Oklahoma City. He has remained in jail since the spring of 2013.
According to the jury who rendered a not guilty verdict, the prosecution failed to present enough evidence to convict Butterfield of the crimes with which he was charged.
Reports say Butterfield was arrested after the victim's girlfriend picked him out of a photo lineup. However, her identification of Butterfield as a suspect was inconsistent with her account at the time of the shooting. Initially, she told police that she was unable to get a good look at the assailant in her boyfriend's robbery and murder. When she did give a description of the shooter to a police sketch artist, her description did not match the appearance of the man she later identified from the lineup.
Further complicating the prosecution's case is the fact that the murder weapon used in the crime was later used and discovered during a drive-by shooting which occurred months after Butterfield had already been jailed in connection with the case. There was no evidence, including DNA and ballistic evidence, to link Butterfield to the murder weapon.
With a witness identification that was unreliable and no evidence to tie the defendant to the murder weapon, the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office was unable to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on the prosecution's failure to meet the burden of proof, the jury was obligated to find the defendant not guilty.
"Burden of proof" means one party's obligation to demonstrate guilt or culpability in a civil or criminal case. The "proof" is slightly different in civil and criminal cases. In a civil case, a defendant is found culpable through a "preponderance of evidence." In other words, it is more likely than not that he or she is responsible for the actions leading to civil litigation. In a criminal case, however, the burden of proof is much heavier.
Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, every defendant is entitled to due process under the law. This right to due process goes hand-in-hand with the presumption of innocence stipulated by the United States Supreme Court decision in Coffin v. U.S. in 1894. While "innocent until proven guilty" has been a common legal theme throughout history, the Coffin v. U.S. case is the first time "the maxim formally entered American law."
In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court established the burden of proof necessary for criminal conviction, and placed that burden solidly upon the shoulders of the prosecution:
"The law presumes that persons charged with crime are innocent until they are proven by competent evidence to be guilty. . . . Before you can find any one of the defendants guilty you must be satisfied of his guilt as charged in some of the counts of the indictment beyond a reasonable doubt."
Butterfield's case stands as a reminder that a person can be criminally charged even with flimsy or circumstantial evidence. It is up to the prosecution to prove guilt, and in the face of insufficient evidence, a competent defense attorney can show that the evidence against a defendant is weak and unconvincing.