The Book of Good Living: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The Book of Good Living: Innocent Until Proven Guilty November 10, 2014

innocentA common thread that has run through many of the stories we’ve seen in the last few years, about the public outcry over genetically modified crops, and over the PCBs which GE dumped in the Hudson River here in Upstate New York, is that there is insufficient proof of the dangers. The implication is that anyone harboring baseless suspicions about these things, which are after all the result of scientific progress, is either a Luddite or a superstitious primitive.

Nobody ever says it out loud, but the basic idea behind such an argument is one dear to our American hearts: “innocent until proven guilty.” Unless we can prove there’s some real hazard, the argument seems to be, we should just shut up and let good honest corporations go about their business.

“Innocent until proven guilty” has to be one of the most sensible concepts in any modern system of justice. Pitting an accused David (a lone defendant) against the Goliath of government (police, prosecutors and prisons with apparently unlimited manpower, unlimited budgets and unlimited punitive will) is woefully one-sided unless David has this quick and heavy stone in his sling — the firmly-established concept that unless his guilt can be positively proven to a panel of peers, he is automatically innocent.

Charges alone, suspicions alone, are not enough. Nor is the magnitude of the supposed crime, nor the race or appearance of the accused, nor the relative anger of the people injured. What matters is: Did the guy do it? At least in determining guilt, everything else is superfluous.

Theoretically, the accused need do nothing at all to defend himself. In practice, of course, any defendant would be a fool not to mount a vigorous defense — but at least the playing field is leveled by the institutionalized presumption of innocence. Innocent until proven guilty is such a good idea that it’s rather amazing to think of past times — and even present-day societies elsewhere in the world — that don’t automatically observe it. We have our own inglorious examples of non-observance, of course — witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, for example, in the year 1692, and the Deep South’s centuries-deep treatment of blacks suspected of various supposed transgressions against white people.

Beyond David and Goliath examples, the argument has deeper logical roots: it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative statement, easier to disprove a positive one.

No, I’m NOT a witch.

Well, can you prove you’re not a witch?

I’m not a witch because I go to church, I wear a cross around my neck, I do community service, I take care of my ailing neighbor, I have 35 friends who will bear witness to my good character, and I spend all day every day in the town square selling apples – during which time I have never been heard to speak a curse or seen to wave my arms in a manner suggesting the casting of a spell.

Big deal. Of course you do all those things, but maybe you’re also a witch in your spare time. Maybe you know a way to cast spells without moving your lips or arms, and those 35 people are all under your spell. Since you’ve failed to prove you’re NOT a witch, I guess we’ll just have to hang you.

Instead of forcing the accused to prove the negative, which she can’t ever do, we expect the prosecutor to make a definitive positive statement, and then back it up, to prove his case:

She IS a witch. She’s been seen to wave her arms in a manner suggesting the casting of spells, and she speaks a language nobody understands.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who gives a hoot what my client does with her arms, or what language she speaks? As for the arm-waving, she could be shooing away flies, conducting an imaginary orchestra, or just enjoying the fresh air with childlike glee. Could be she just shaved her underarms and applied an alcohol-based deodorant. And she could speak anything from pig latin to ancient Persian to a secret language she created all on her own, and it’s nobody’s business. Surely there are ten thousand other people out there right now waving their arms and speaking strange languages, and none of them stand here accused of witchcraft. Nope, the prosecutor has completely failed to support the statement that my client IS a witch. She’s innocent, she goes free, end of story.

Just for the record, though, she’s practicing for her part in a community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet – in Polish.

In human affairs, at least, “innocent until proven guilty” is a good idea simply because it works. Though the occasional miscreant might go free, it produces the most humane solutions to questions of justice. Rather than living in constant fear of prosecution on the flimsiest of anonymously-conveyed grounds, leaving individuals and the justice system in general to the fury of jilted lovers or the jealousy of neighbors, most people can go about their day happily ignorant of the machinery of cops, courts and hanging ropes.

Does it apply in other realms, though? Just how widely applicable is the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”?

Suppose the “accused” is a drug that makes pregnancy easier to bear, but which later seems to be linked to horrendous birth defects?

Suppose it’s a food additive placed in children’s cereal which the manufacturer maintains is harmless, but which is later suspected of causing hyperactivity that makes it difficult for children to learn?

Suppose it’s a new insecticide planned to be sprayed on food crops, about which nothing is suspected or known, other than it kills bugs?

In the first two of these cases, the fundamental difference is that the “accused” is not a person suspected of causing a problem for another person, but a thing – a chemical, drug or process – suspected of causing a problem for a human being.

The core question is, does a THING have the same right to presumed innocence that a person has – particularly when the thing is suspected of harming real people?

Asked that way, it’s immediately obvious that the answer has to be a resounding No. Things don’t have the same rights that people have. Things have no rights at all. Presumption of innocence is turned on its head – things are guilty until proven innocent.

How do we handle the third case, where the thing in question is not even in question?

The answer would be easy even to our most distant ancestors: given a choice of two different types of berries, juicy purple ones which you know are edible, and shiny red ones about which you don’t know anything at all, you don’t even touch the unknown ones. Given a choice of a forest-grown mushroom that you absolutely recognize and know to be safe, and another mushroom a few feet away that looks a bit like the edible one, but a bit different too, you don’t just pick the new one and assume that it will be okay.

In a sometimes unfriendly world where some things are food and some are poison, and the cost of choosing the wrong one is your life and maybe the life of everyone you love, you keep the wild culinary adventures to a minimum.

In other words, things not even in question are in question, every time, until they’re proven to be safe. It’s still basically a question of the rights of people versus the rights of things. Things are automatically to be considered harmful to people unless you can somehow prove that they’re not. It’s why we have a Food and Drug Administration that approves – or declines to approve, after extensive trials – new drugs.

The benefit of any doubt, even manufactured doubt, has to fall on the side of human health and safety every time. Not on the side of corporations, or things.

Only PEOPLE are “innocent until proven guilty.” THINGS are automatically guilty – suspected of being dangerous – until proven otherwise.

We’re in danger of forgetting that.

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