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Innocent until proven guilty?

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: Opinions


As an American, I am expected to be proud of our nation’s lofty principles including freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the right to privacy and the general right to have some say in how we are governed. America is such an awesome society that we supposedly even treat our criminals fairly by allowing them the right to a fair and speedy trial with a jury of their peers. While in other countries someone could get their hand cut off or be stoned to death without question for supposedly wronging someone else, in America we are better than that. That is the theory at least.

Upon thinking about our justice system, however, I keep coming to the same conclusion. Whenever I watch the news coverage of major trials—and there have been a lot of widely publicized trials recently—I feel that we are failing ourselves with one of our major legal principles.

I first became aware of this failure while studying in the Netherlands this summer in the Brandeis in The Hague program. With this program, I attended classes about the fundamentals of international law and visited major institutions of The Hague, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Court of Justice and the Special Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

During one visit to the ICC, we saw the hearing of two men accused of recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Later that night, I messaged one of my old friends from high school via Facebook, telling her about the trial I had seen. I told her in particular about the trial because, back in high school, she had been involved with Invisible Children—an organization with the goal of ending such practices as the recruitment of child soldiers in Uganda. When I told her about the trial, her reaction was simple: “Oh, I hope he got convicted.”

Some of you might not see why this is a problem. Certainly recruiting child soldiers is a horrible crime and, if someone is found to be guilty of it, then they should face the full extent of the legal code’s punishment. What my friend unknowingly revealed, however, is a cultural tendency of ours to think in terms contradictory to what our legal code prescribes. Our country is based on the principle of presumed innocence until guilt is proven. My friend assumed there wasn’t even the possibility of innocence. They were guilty. End of story.

This demonstrates a contrast between our societal emphasis on due process and fair trial, and the widespread instinct to feel otherwise. It seems that as soon as someone is accused of a horrible crime, they are instantly presumed to be guilty by the public. The challenge isn’t finding out the truth of the matter, as much as figuring out how to outmaneuver the defense counsel to keep an obviously guilty man from escaping the law.

One example of prejudice in the political sphere is found in the reactions toward the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. They were different people, killed in very different ways, and yet share the similarity of not seeming worthy of a trial. While I would not go so far as to suggest that I doubt these two were guilty of horrible crimes based on overwhelming evidence suggesting that they are guilty, both were killed in illegitimate and essentially unlawful ways. Was there massive protest in the United States about either of them not being sent to the ICC? Not really. While there was some talk in the media about whether or not they should have been brought to trial, as well as some investigation into Gaddafi’s recent death, people were not that angry. This seems to be a perfect example of people being willing to bypass legal structures in declaring guilt without actually proving guilt. Someone killing an innocent man is the same murder charge as someone killing a man guilty of killing others. Yet it was just assumed by the public that these people deserved to die and that there was no need to confirm guilt.

The first thing to do once we see this is a problem is to delve into the source. Why is it that when we see a criminal being brought to court in handcuffs on the morning news, our instant thought is “oh, how awful that that person did that horrible thing. I hope they got locked up in a dank, dark cell with bad plumbing,” when our thought—as prescribed by the core of our legal structure—should be “oh, if that person’s guilty I hope they serve their due penalty but, if they’re innocent, I hope they go free.” I’m guilty of this too. Just last night as I was watching the news, I pre-judged someone—even when I was planning on writing an article lambasting this kind of behavior. A man was accused of touching a woman inappropriately in a bar. My thought was “oh, he was probably drunk. Still doesn’t excuse him.” Once again, there was the assumption of guilt. So why do we do this?

First of all, I think that we do this specifically with the worst crimes. When someone is accused of child molestation, we have a more visceral reaction to the crime, simply because it is such a horrible crime that we aren’t thinking so much about who to blame as of our desire to blame someone. Certainly such an awful crime cannot go without someone being punished. Therefore we trust whatever stone-cold face we see on CNN. With other less serious crimes, there is not that urgency to place blame.

Furthermore, assuming that someone is guilty before a trial ensues, is partially due to the previous knowledge of the people observing the person in question. There is no doubt that there are horrible people in the world who commit awful acts upon society and, when we see that someone is accused of a car bombing, we do not just see them. Our mind instinctively connects them with others accused of similar crimes. The more similarities between the two that we see, the more we are inclined to think that if one is guilty, the other is guilty as well.

So why is it so important that we rid ourselves of this tendency to convict internally before trial? It is simply because of how serious many of these crimes are for which people “pre-convict.”

Some would read this column and suggest this viewpoint is being soft on crimes of an atrocious nature, but it is simply because I understand the gravity of these crimes that I think it is so crucial to judge appropriately and without bias. First and foremost, we should consider the possibility of an innocent person being sent to jail. This is bad not only for that person whose life could potentially be unjustly destroyed, but for the victim of the crime as well, because they did not receive the authentic and appropriate justice that they should have received. The person who did them wrong is still at large. Even if the person appears to be guilty based on overwhelming evidence, we should still provide them an unbiased atmosphere. If not to uphold our principles, then simply for the sake of the great expanse of information that can be gained from a legitimate trial.

What it comes down to is that our justice system is designed not to be emotional. Aristotle once said that “law is reason free from passion” and, while it is embarrassing to admit that the first time I heard that quote was in the film “Legally Blonde,” it still rings true.

I see a book of laws much the way I see a book of medicine. For a disease there is a prescription. If someone has a certain ailment, the doctor can prescribe certain fixes to the problem. There can be multiple prescriptions and the doctor can improvise a little bit but, all in all, the doctor should be bound by what has been proven to be effective in the past. Similarly, a law has prescriptions.

If you commit a certain crime, the judge should be able to prescribe you a certain punishment based on what has been done in the past. They can choose from a list of various ideas but everything needs to have a logical reason behind it. The rationale for this is to avoid situations in which our natural human emotions steer us in the wrong direction. Our emotions could steer us toward wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to a guilty man who is more likeable and more pleasing to us, while not doing so to a man who is cold and unappealing to us.

All should be equal under the legitimate and unemotional code of laws, and it is for this reason that we really need to hold ourselves to our standard, and uphold the principle of innocent until proven guilty.