Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

I had a friend. His name was Ricky. At one point in his life, Ricky lived with a girl. They talked about getting married. She had three daughters. For whatever reason, it didn't work out. Ricky moved out of the house and on with his life. For a little bit at least. And then, one day not long after moving out, without warning...Ricky found himself under investigation. And in jail. One of the daughters had accused Ricky of molesting her. Ricky spent a month in jail. The small town newspaper made big news of it, putting the story and his picture on the front page. He lost his job. His family was thrown into chaos. And I was in shock. I knew this guy. Knew his Mom, his brother, his brother's girlfriend! But little girls don't lie about this sort of thing...do they? Do they?

Actually, they do. The investigators kept talking to the little girl and details got confusing and the story started unraveling and around the time she also told about seeing Ricky "touch" her special needs sister, the investigators were suspicious. It all fell apart to reveal that the ex-girlfriend had coached the girl and convinced her that Ricky was a bad man and that she needed to tell the story so he went to jail forever for hurting mommy. The police department considered filing charges against the woman, but in the end, did not. Partly because Ricky asked them not to. He loved the three girls and their Mom was the only one they had to take care of them. He couldn't stand the thought of them in foster care.

He was released from jail. His family welcomed him back with open arms as did most of his friends. Not so the majority of the town. They had seen his face. They had seen the story. It was front page news. He must have been guilty. They certainly hadn't seen anything in the paper telling them he had been found innocent.

Seven months after being released from jail, Ricky moved away from his family and friends to escape the stigma thrown upon him by lies, manipulation and irresponsible media.

In 2006 three students from Duke University are accused of rape. Scandal erupts. I watch the stories and think "how sick and twisted" "how dare they" and "their money better not get them out of it". The boys, who play on Duke's lacrosse team, are charged, arrested and go to trial. The coach of the Lacrosse team is forced to resign, the rest of the season is cancelled for the team, and the case causes a media sensation. Accusations that this is actually a hate crime are hurled. The boys, their families and even students from the school with little to no connection to the case are threatened.

The case falls apart. The boys are found not guilty. The district attorney resigns after it's revealed how rushed and shoddy his case was. The accuser is later is found guilty of child abuse and is awaiting trial for the stabbing death of her boyfriend. And I feel like an idiot.

The presumption of innocence is considered a basic human right. The idea that we are "innocent until proven guilty" is a foundation of the American legal system and noted in the 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Why? Because the forefathers had witnessed the tyranny of a country that could jail you for no reason, hold you in prison for any length of time and convict you without due process. 

Don't get me wrong when I say this. I want molesters, rapists, traffickers and "johns" to go to jail. When I read statistics about unreported rapes, rapists not being convicted, johns who buy girls for sexual purposes and get nothing more than a slap on the wrist, I get more than furious. I steam over the fact that "what were you wearing?" is a common question a rape victim is expected to answer. I want men who violate women in any shape, fashion or form to receive justice. There are some stories that make me want to dispense the justice myself. However, I never want this justice to come without a fair trial. Due process. And that means he must be proven guilty. It does not mean that he must be proven innocent. That's the way it works. It is certainly the way I want it to work if I'm accused of a crime. It's the way you'd want to be treated as well.

Furthermore, the media must be held responsible. If they are going to report on a case, they must be unbiased and report in an objective way. An accusation does not mean front page news and-if it does-an acquittal (or a dropped case) should get the same attention. Someone's life should not be ruined because he/she was accused of doing something. I don't care if innocent men sale less papers than guilty ones.

A few weeks ago a local paper published a story of a guy with charges against him. The story, including a picture of him, was on the front page. I thought about Ricky. I thought about this guy's wife and family. I thought about how wrong it is that they actually printed his address in the article. I realized the paper was already assuming he was guilty. And, since they wrote it that way, most people will read it and assume the same. I'll bet you anything if he's not, they'll never put that on the front page. What will it be like for him walking into work? To church? At dinner with his wife? A family outing with his in-laws? Will he and his wife have to move away to avoid the assumptions? What will it do to his marriage? What if he has kids? Can you imagine what going to school would be like?

You're thinking if he's guilty, he deserves it. But what if he isn't? What does he deserve then? Right now, the one thing he does deserve is to be innocent until proven otherwise.


  1. This is so good. It's really easy for us to get caught up in the media hype around cases, and for us to assume the worst about people. Thanks for bringing perspective on this issue!

  2. I also believe innocent until proven guilty. I think it is so sad that the newspaper printed his address. Thanks for the article!

  3. I think a lot of this goes back to the number of times in the past when these cases were glossed over, or it was assumed that children couldn't possibly be telling the truth when they talked about how trusted adults and people in authority had "touched" them. Look at the number of incidents in the Catholic Church where priests were left in their places of power and authority long after repeated allegations of abuse. Too often, incidents have been swept under the carpet, especially when it's "his word against her word."

    Unfortunately, the situation has swung WAY over to the other side. Maybe the worst problem is "counselors" or investigators who have an agenda, who are so incensed by these crimes and the lack of justice in the past that they push way too hard, or ask leading questions, or end up planting "memories" in people's heads, encouraging them to wildly exaggerate their claims. I'm dealing with a situation similar to this (not myself, but someone in the family), where there was probably some inappropriate behavior (bad enough), but the claims and accusations have spilled over into the fantastic (for example, things that I know for a fact couldn't have happened). Unfortunately, there seems to be a "counselor" with an ax to grind. (*sigh*)

  4. And sometimes even the innocent are locked away because all the 'proof' you have to have is a child's word against the adult's. No physical evidence required. Then 12 jurors go back and forth for days because they don't know what to do. Children don't lie...or do they? :-(