Friday, October 5, 2007

A Civics Lesson: 'Innocent Until Proven Guilty' is a Bedrock Principle of Justice

I got an interesting comment on my post about the flag brouhaha at the University of New Mexico. Although I had to delete and repost it because I do not want certain words on my blog, the commentor had also an interesting take on our justice system. I originally started to discuss this in my reply to his comment, but soon realized that my take on it really deserves a full post.

On October 3, 2007, the anonymous commentor said in part:

"In a legal system where "guilty" means "what they can prove you did", Peter Lynch might get off with just a slap on the wrist."

This statement indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of the 'innocent until proven guilty' concept that underlies our system of trying cases in court.

The idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock concept that insures justice in our courts. The justice we are talking about is justice in trial for the accused in criminal cases where the state brings the accusations to court on behalf of the citizens. Our founders based this on the English common law that is based on the Magna Carta. That document is based on local practices in England that predate the reign of King John.

Why is this considered justice? Because the state, with all its powers, is bringing a case against an individual. The state has numerous advantages in such a situation. In order to ensure a fair trial, as is constitutionally guarranteed to the accused, it is necessary to force the state to prove the accusations before a candid citizenry. Therefore the state must follow these rules: the accused must be informed of the exact charges against him/her. The accused must be formally charged and tried in timely manner, and the accused must be provided a fair trial with legal representation. There are also rules of evidence that must be used or the case can be dismissed. The accused also has the right to appeal a verdict all the way up to the United States Supreme Court if necessary. Under current law, those appeals are automatic in cases in which a guilty verdict could mean that the accused is deprived of life.

There are many countries in which these legal protections do not apply. Under Napoleanic law for example, the onus is on the accused to prove innocence. I am glad that I do not live in such a nation. It would be too easy for public opinion or state prejudices to railroad the innocent, depriving a person of life, liberty and property unjustly.

It is true that under our system, the state is not always able to prove a case against someone who is, in truth, guilty. That is the price we pay for the protection of our liberties.
It is also true that there are times when overzealous prosecutors manage to railroad an innocent person using public perception and the power of the state against them, despite their sworn duty to uphold the constitution. The answer to this is not to jettison our constitutional protections. Rather, we should bring hold such people accountable and work to bring our local systems closer to the ideals we espouse.

The farmers who "fired the shot heard 'round the world' in Lexington and Concord had a fundamental mistrust of the powers of government. They had seen those powers abused by the British Crown and they had been hurt by the Intolerable Acts and other abuses perpetrated on them. Their interest at first was to protect their "rights as Englishmen." When the United States Constitution was ratified by the states, the framers were in a quandary. The Articles of Confederation were weak and were creating chaos. At the same time, most citizens were very wary of giving powers to a national government; powers that could be turned against the citizens. So when the constitution was ratified, the first ten ammendments were immediately ratified also. The whole package guaranteed certain rights to the citizens and limited the power of the state. Part of that package is the protection enjoyed by the accused in criminal cases.

Another statement by the anonymous commentor that deserves a response:

"Forget his actions, judge his motivations (since everyone seems to be throwing judgment left and right).. But only he knows what really motivated him to do what he did - and the way he chose to do it."

Yes, you are right. The controversy as it plays out in the press is about Lynch's motivations. Some people argue that his motivation was frustrated patriotism and they believe that this should be taken into account by the legal system. Others argue that he was motivated by hatred and that this should be taken into account by the legal system. The whole controversy about the alleged My Space comments is about motivations and not about action. The My Space comments are mean, nasty and socially unacceptable. People have various opinions about them. And that is their right.

But we ought to remember that people have the right to express their opinions freely--even unpopular ones. Even mean, nasty and socially unacceptable ones. Even politically incorrect ones. Even opinions that La Raza does not approve.

In the legal system, however, motivations should play only a small role in the matter. That is because we cannot prove them. What should matter is actions. This is why Peter Lynch has been charged with the crime of destruction of property. The level of punishment for this crime is also written in the law, and has many factors that must be analyzed. Is it a felony or not? Is it a first offense? How serious is the action? Who was hurt? Whose rights were violated and to what extent? These are the matters which should concern the courts. The job of the criminal court system is not to mirror the vagaries of public approbation. It is to provide a place in which reason and proof are used to uphold the laws of the state and nation.

Every citizen has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. In the United States, the burden of proof is upon the state.

1 comment:

momof3feistykids said...

I don't know anything about this case, other than what I read on your blog, but it does raise some interesting questions. Thank you for providing this food for thought.