As Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains here, the term “acquit” means “to set free, release or discharge from an obligation, burden, or accusation.” An “acquittal” “is what a jury or a judge sitting without a jury does at the end of a criminal trial if the jury or the judge finds the accused defendant not guilty of the crime.”
In a nutshell, to acquit someone means to find them not guilty. During a bench trial, a judge makes the factual determinations and decides whether to acquit or convict the person accused. In a jury trial, the jurors make all the factual determinations.
A not-guilty verdict constitutes an acquittal of the person accused in a criminal trial. Acquit is the opposite of convict. An acquittal occurs when the judge at a bench trial or the jury at a jury trial determines that the prosecutor did not prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt. To convict is to find or to prove that the person accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutors proved that the person accused is more than probably guilty.
If a jury or judge decides to acquit you, what happens?
The legal effect of an acquittal is the same as in a finding of not guilty. The person accused goes free. However, a guilty person can also get an acquittal when, for example, prosecutors do not present sufficient evidence to convict. When the accused is found not guilty, they do not have to answer further for the criminal charge filed against them. However, it is not the equivalent of factual innocence in every case.
Sometimes, a person receives multiple criminal charges against them, and a judge or jury finds them guilty of some charges but not others. That is, the judge or jury acquits on some charges and convicts on others. In that case, the person is partially acquitted of the charges they were found not guilty of. But they still cannot walk free. They have to answer for the charges on which they are found guilty.
An acquittal does not always mean that the defendant is innocent of the allegations; it only means that the prosecution did not prove that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For that reason, a criminal charge sometimes remains on a person’s criminal record even without a conviction.
To acquit means that a judge or jury evaluating the facts of a case determines there was not sufficient evidence to find someone guilty of the accusations made against them. That could be because they are factually innocent or because there was evidence missing. When the evidence is insufficient to show that the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the court must acquit them. This means that they must find them not guilty.