Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Innocent Until Proven Guilty August 17, 2018

No judicial system is perfect. Only gods are (allegedly) omniscient. Humans suffer from human flaws. They are biased. They make mistakes. Innocent people have been imprisoned, even executed by our courts. Guilty individuals have walked out of court free men. I was reminded of this recently when a man who had been imprisoned for twenty-seven years was found innocent after DNA tests proved he could not have committed the crime. He is now in his sixties. The courts stole the best years of his life. Imagine, if you can, the mental anguish that such a person lives with every day, knowing that they are innocent.

Which is worse, convicting the innocent or letting the guilty go free?

After a lifetime of observation and experience, I would say that people with a conservative, right-wing political worldview would rather err on the side of conviction of the innocent, while liberal/progressives would favor letting an occasional guilty person go free. I don’t have any formal evidence to support this, but after a lifetime of observation and experience, my anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. I could probably find some studies to support my claim, and those who disagree could probably find some that contradict me. I am not going to do that. Link wars are boring, and usually prove nothing. But I am only human, and I am biased by my life experiences.

My opinion was reinforced recently when an acquaintance who is a devoted Trump supporter was excoriating a “liberal judge” who he claimed had released a convicted criminal from jail because the evidence that convicted him had been collected illegally without warrant. Soon after release, the individual committed a rape or murder or something equally heinous.

I have some doubts about this story. My acquaintance is a devout believer, not only in Jesus, but also in all kinds of conspiracy theories, like chemtrails and the HAARP antenna array. Both are government plots, according to him, that are aimed at killing off most of humanity so that the evil plotters can take over the world.

But what if the story is true? Does that justify denying a defendant “due process?” How many others wrongly convicted of crimes returned to society and were law-abiding citizens?

People who are strict “law and order” types tend to be biased toward defendants, especially if they are…ahem…members of a minority. Black people have long complained that they are ticketed for traffic violations at a far higher rate than whites. They label it DWB…driving while black. And, of course arrests for drug use are similarly disproportional. I read about a case recently where law enforcement personnel deliberately withheld evidence from defense attorneys that could have exonerated their client. In other cases, cops actually planted drugs in an individual’s car and then “found” them. The reasoning apparently goes something like this: The guy is probably guilty of a lot of crimes like this one, so even if he’s innocent this time, we need to nail him.

The vast majority of people in law enforcement would never do such a thing. I think most people recognize that. I grew up on an apple farm, and I assure you that every bushel of apples has a few bad ones.

Which brings me to the issue of immigrants. Trump says all the Hispanics arriving from the south are “rapists and murderers.” So, we need to keep them all out. And, of course all those arriving from Islamic countries are terrorists. Zero tolerance is his answer. Build a wall and shut them out…and prosecute and deport those who are already here. They are all condemned for the actions of a few. Living in California, I have had many encounters with Hispanic immigrants, and some with Muslims. I have yet to meet a “bad apple,” but I am sure there are some. I will not condemn the vast majority of them for the actions of a few.

But let’s get back to the original question that I posed. Let me restate it this way: How should we balance our judicial and law enforcement systems to do the least harm when it makes errors, which it inevitably will?

I think there is a trend in this country, and some other places in the world, to tolerate miscarriages of justice that lead to persecution of minorities. Furthermore, I attribute this trend to rise of right-wing and nativist political groups who demonize certain groups based on the actions of a few “bad apples.”

I don’t have a remedy for this. It seems to be a characteristic of a sizeable segment of our society. Sometimes it is suppressed, but it is always there, just waiting for a demagogue to ignite it.

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