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What is an Acquittal?

Updated on January 4, 2010

An acquittal, in criminal law, is the judicial discharge of a person accused of a crime. The accused may be acquitted by a jury's verdict of "not guilty," by a judge's ruling, or by simple operation of law, as in the case of an accessory when the principal is acquitted. Acquittal discharges a person from guilt, pardon only from punishment.

In the United States, acquittal may be the result of some technical defects in the proceedings. A second trial of the case may then be instituted. But if the accused is acquitted as the result of a verdict in his favor on the merits of the case, the acquittal bars his further prosecution for the same offense. This protection is guaranteed by a provision of the U.S. Constitution that "no person shall be twice put in jeopardy for the same offense."

In civil law, acquittal is the judicial release of a person from the terms of a contract, debt, or other obligation.

In feudal law, acquittal was the obligation of a mesne lord to protect his tenants from claims by higher lords resulting from his own debts to the higher lords.

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