Was Steve innocent?
Whether it was intended or not, this becomes the critical issue of the novel. At the same time, the wording of the question has to be examined. There is a difference between "innocent" and "not guilty." The legal system and the timbre of the book focuses on "not guilty." It is a "not guilty" verdict that is read aloud. It is a "not guilty" verdict that O'Brien drives towards in defending Steve. It is a "not guilty" verdict that Steve holds in his own mind as the lasting legacy of the trial. Steve is found "not guilty" and this becomes what we, as the readers, take from the narrative. The legal system has found Steve "not guilty" and this has to be accepted.
Whether or not Steve is innocent might be an entirely different set of conditions. To be "innocent" means that Steve did nothing wrong and was a victim of circumstance. It is here where the case becomes much more difficult to make. Steve would have to be seen as entirely devoid of doing anything seen as a bad choice. If this were the case, there would not be so much question at the end of the narrative as to whether he really is a "monster." If the novel leads the reader down a road of questioning as to if the "not guilty" verdict is valid and "true," then the question as to "innocence" would be even more challenging. The fact that the narrative is presented in a script form also adds to this, for the script manner never gives the reader a full point of view or a wide frame of reference. It is always dependent on cuts and specific moments. There is nothing absolute and totalizing in a script format, being dependent on point of view. For this reason, being able to ascertain whether the jury made the right decision becomes the looming challenge at the conclusion of the novel. If this is so, then it becomes even more difficult and intricate to ascertain Steve's innocence, a standard which is much higher than "not guilty."