Len Browning: Innocent until proven guilty
January 22, 2010
Some years ago, I had a friend who was arrested as part of a large undercover operation that netted a number of suspected drug dealers.
My friend was listed with the dozen or so other suspects in the story, which included mug shots in his local newspaper. The front page coverage listed all the facts related to the case from the public portion of the arrest warrants. The specifics, however, came out later in his trial.
It seems my friend was recorded by a "wired" informant agreeing to modify a 4-wheel drive pickup to create a compartment that could conceal several pounds of marijuana for a drug run his customer was planning to make to Mexico in the near future. It turns out it is not illegal to modify a pickup for such purposes — stupid yes, illegal no.
What was frustrating to me at that time was that after my friend's case was dismissed in court months later, and after he spent thousands of dollars in legal fees, there was no mention of his acquittal in the newspaper.
In a just society, acquitting the innocent is no less important than convicting the guilty.
The principle that an accused person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is, therefore, fundamental to our American sense of justice. Americans think the innocent should be protected at all costs, and this includes making every possible effort to avoid punishing them for crimes of which they are not guilty.
This emphasis on protecting the innocent is based on a long Western tradition.
It was foreshadowed by Exodus 23:7: "Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty."
Even in the early days of Israel, God emphasized the importance of protecting the innocent. Time and space do not permit me to cover the New Testament principles regarding the treatment of the accused.
I have come to realize my frustration about my friend's situation and his treatment in the local paper was misplaced.
The newspaper is reporting in its police blotter the public information relating to arrests made. This arrest procedure is the first step under our right of "due process." Our right to "speedy trial" is part of the next step in the process. Ultimately, a trial where evidence is presented and accusers are faced result in a verdict.
The burden of proof is on the prosecution. The burden of thinking someone is innocent until proven guilty after showing up in the newspaper's police blotter is on me. I tend to consider anyone who is listed in the police blotter as guilty — don't you?
This is public information available to us all. The Craig Daily Press is just printing it as a service to the community, sparing us the time and energy of obtaining this information ourselves.
The role of our system of jurisprudence is to grant the rights afforded citizens under the Fifth Amendment (due process), the Sixth Amendment (speedy trial), the Eighth Amendment (excessive bail) and the 14th Amendment (civil and political rights). It is interesting to note that "innocent until proven guilty" is stated nowhere in our constitution.
The role of considering suspects accused of crimes as innocent until proven guilty is ours.
The court of public opinion, over which you and I sit, is the arena where suspects often are treated as guilty because they are charged.
Innocent until proven guilty is nothing more than a wonderful platitude when you and I don't practice what we preach.