Innocent until Proven Guilty? Or Guilty until Proven Innocent?

Innocent until Proven Guilty? Or Guilty until Proven Innocent? February 25, 2017

Innocent until Proven Guilty? Or Guilty until Proven Innocent?


All my life I’ve heard the mantra “innocent until proven guilty” as one expression of our American justice system. It means, of course, “until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law by a jury of one’s peers.” And, I learned, as I grew older, there are exceptions. A defendant can, for example, plead guilty or he can request his case to be heard and decided by a judge instead of a jury.

However, underlying all that, and given those few exceptions, basic to our American system of justice is the well-known principle that a person accused of committing a crime should be considered innocent until she is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

As an ethicist, however, I question whether we, as a society, really abide by that principle. I think we should work harder at it.

Too often persons accused of crimes are tried and, for all practical purposes, declared guilty long before any trial is held (or they confess to the crimes). How does this happen? In a recent case, reported in the newspaper, a man was accused of and charged with a sexual misdemeanor; his name and picture were printed and some people who knew him were quoted as assuming his guilt. This is not an isolated incident; it happens all too often.

A few years ago I was privileged to serve in a “jury pool.” During the “voir dire,” during which the prosecutor and the defense attorney questioned us to discover our fitness to serve on this particular jury, several potential jurors expressed the opinion that the defendant, an African-American man sitting in the same room, “must have done something or he wouldn’t be here.” I suspect that opinion is very common.

Memories are too short. In 2006 three Duke University lacrosse players were falsely accused of and charged with rape; they were villainized in the media. Some television “crime journalists” tried them and found them guilty long before the evidence was in and the case dropped. The charges against them were dismissed and a prosecutor was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct. And yet, their lives were forever altered by the false accusation and public exposure.

We should have re-learned a lesson from that and numerous other examples of cases in which people accused and charged with crimes turned out to be truly innocent. The lesson is that “innocent until proven guilty” is more than an empty mantra; it is a principle to be followed by everyone—including the media and employers.

If I had my way (which I sadly don’t expect), the identities of persons accused especially of sex crimes would not be revealed until they either confess or are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a judge (as they choose) or jury of their peers—all of who know what “innocent until proven guilty” means.

I support caution in such cases. No doubt employers and others should know about the accusation and charge and either suspend the accused with pay or quarantine him from contact with potential victims.

Very often, however, public language about such accused persons, points to a presumption of their guilt. They are often referred to as “perpetrators” long before any due process has been conducted and concluded.

Speaking up on behalf of persons accused of sex crimes is not comfortable; I have no doubt that some readers will think I am “soft on crime.” That is not the case; I am simply calling for us all, including especially the media, to take more seriously the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” Many innocent people’s lives have been destroyed by rushes to judgment based solely on their being accused of (especially but not only) sex crimes. Their families have also been severely affected by their father’s, brother’s or son’s picture being published in what amounts to a modern equivalent of the antiquated “perp walk.”

Yes, the public has “a right to know,” but I would argue that right should not override an accused person’s right to be considered truly innocent until proven guilty. And that does not seem possible—given our society’s tendency to believe the worst about the accused—when their pictures and identities are published for all to see. So the only solution is to protect the accused’s privacy until she either confesses or is found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in court.

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