Every time there’s a…
Every time there’s a high-profile personality accused of something, as with the recent accusations against singer Michael Jackson, inevitably people start to form opinions. And, just as inevitably, other complain “What about ‘innocent until proven guilty’?” I saw that sentiment on Fox & Friends this morning (a viewer E-mail), as well as from Elizabeth Taylor, and I thought I’d weigh in on why I think that’s a non-sequiter (somewhat akin to asking, “But what about the price of tea in China?”). I’ll start with the standard disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, but this is not so much a legal brief as it is an opinion as to why this isn’t so much a legal issue.

Let’s start with a hypothetical situation. A burglar comes into your house to steal something. While doing this, you catch him in action and get a clear look at him. He escapes with something of yours, but at some point he is arrested. He goes to trial, and during the trial his defense attorney presents a convincing argument to the jury that this fellow actually has an airtight alibi for the time of the burglary. You know this is the guy, and you know for sure that he’s guilty. He did come into your house and steal your things. However, the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict.

The question now is; is this man guilty or not? The legal system has said he isn’t, but what about reality? I believe our legal system gets it right far more often than it gets it wrong, but nonetheless the verdict of that system does not always reflect reality. Is this man guilty? Yes, he is, even though the legal system has said he is innocent. So the distinction here is that legally he is innocent, while in reality he is guilty.

And that is why asking “What about ‘innocent until proven guilty'” is not applicable to people’s opinions. That tenet is a legal policy. The legal system must treat the accused as innocent unless there is sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to declare the person guilty (as opposed to assuming the accused is guilty and must prove his innocence). This obviously does not mean that the person really is innocent of the crime until a verdict is reached, only that the legal system starts from the position that they must be treated as such until the evidence says otherwise.

People’s opinions are not subject to this tenet unless they happen to be serving on a jury. Otherwise, we can form our own opinions about someone’s guilt or innocence with as much (or as little) information as we like. Telling someone that they can’t form an opinion because the verdict hasn’t come in yet is really an apples-to-oranges comparison. Suggesting that people must apply that legal tenet to their own opinions is like saying that I’m not allowed to insist my 3-year-old tell me if he broke his brother’s toy because that would violate the legal tenet of not incriminating oneself. Legal policy is for the legal system.

It seems rather silly to me that this even has to be explained, but as I said I see this every time there’s a celebrity or some other high-profile person accused of something. I’m sure this thought will continue to come up in the future, but maybe, just maybe, some will find this entry in their favorite web search engine (Liz, are you reading this?) and we can put this idea to rest, one page hit at a time.

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