Photo by Nellely Azpeitia
Editorial: Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court raised questions regarding whether or not it was possible to convict Kavanaugh of something that happened decades before. However, many people were deeply concerned by the possibility that Kavanaugh was actually guilty. But is it okay to assume that a defendant is innocent if it could be harmful?
November 3, 2018
These unsigned editorials are written by the members of the editorial board: Alice Antony, Nellely Azpeitia, Emet Beckman, Kayla Briceño, Celeste Chavez, Lauren Doran, Sue Jacob, Taya Llapitan, Cash Martinez, Alejandro Paredes, Sydney Pearce, Aalyna Silva, Kevin Sittner, Natasha Thomas, Kaitlyn Wong, and Grace Yarrow. However, the ideas presented do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gaucho Gazette staff as a whole.
Being “innocent until proven guilty” is a vital principle of the American judicial system. Put in place to ensure a fair trial for defendants, it is a saving grace for the accused—when it is used properly. Throughout history, the application of innocent until proven guilty has been shakily applied. It has fallen short of preventing the prejudices and preconceptions of jury members from interfering in the rulings of cases. It has failed to sway verdicts that were harsher than the cases warranted. As time has progressed, it’s not necessarily accurate to say that this concept is no longer relevant; rather, historically, it has not proved to keep the innocent out of prison nor has it spurred prosecutors to uncover more credible evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” On top of this, in cases where true proof can no longer be found—in long past sexual assault trials, for example—ambiguity comes into play. Who decides what qualifies as proof enough to determine someone’s guilt?
The biggest issue with this idea is that its interpretation leaves a lot up to the personal judgment of juries and judges and in no way guides their perception of cases. Take for example OJ Simpson’s case in 1995: the presumption of innocence threw jurors and the public for a loop as DNA evidence was piled against him, but holes in select pieces of evidence — an ill-fitting glove and a racist police officer- lead to Simpson’s acquittal. The public is still divided on his innocence with many people confident that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend. That being said, if the jury had been chosen even a little bit differently, Simpson could have been sentenced to life in prison. The presumption of innocence was very relevant, but for many people, their own hastily-found conclusions and in some cases, their racist inclinations quickly led them to conclusions that “innocent until proven guilty” would hardly have affected the case. Although in Simpson’s case, it prevented him from a life sentence, a less carefully picked jury would have exposed a fatal flaw in this principle: what may seem doubtful to one may be overwhelming proof for another — especially when prejudices resulting from gender and race are at play.
In addition to the inconsistent application of the presumption of innocence, it is further misinterpreted by the masses as a guide to general accusations (when convenient, of course). Brett Kavanaugh’s fight against former high school classmate Christine Ford’s accusations of sexual assault brought anger from Republicans, who reminded the public and Democrats that “a man or woman must always be presumed innocent unless, and until, proven guilty.” However, Kavanaugh was not in a criminal trial with a jury in charge of his fate; Kavanaugh was being investigated for a job interview, and thus the judicial precedent of innocent until proven guilty does not apply to opinions about every occurrence in life, only to those formed in a criminal hearing.
Innocent until proven guilty has its place as a guiding principle for criminal proceedings, but its usefulness is not to the extent that it will significantly shape cases — especially in trials that may come during the era of the #MeToo movement. Yes, it is important to review credible evidence before deciding a defendant’s fate, but it is also inevitable to form opinions based on what is given—whether it’s only victim or a witness’ testimony or DNA evidence. The ability of humans to make intelligent decisions and informed judgments is not going to be enhanced by this idea, and a simple, echoed phrase has little sway in combating the deeply inscribed judgments of everyday people that may appear on a jury. The presumption of innocence has fallen out of relevance slowly throughout history, and now is only an excessively-repeated phrase that lacks the weight to change one’s approach to a criminal trial.
A Fair System
The presumption of innocence is an essential part of the 14th amendment’s “equal protection under the law.” In a criminal trial, the defendant must be considered innocent until proven guilty in order for a fair judicial process to exist. No criminal justice system is perfect, but this idea helps keep the rights of those accused by state or federal governments and avoids discrimination and corruption on the part of judges.
Unfortunately, the criminal justice system in the United States has many flaws, especially when the presumption of innocence is not taken seriously. According to WYNC, in 2007, 19-year-old Donovan Drayton was accused of murdering a 30-year-old man in Queens, N.Y. Drayton pleaded innocent, but due to the severity of the crime, the judge refused to grant bail. Five years later, Drayton was still awaiting a trial from behind bars. Delayed trials in combination with the failure to recognize the presumption of innocence create an unbelievably unfair system in which discrimination can go unnoticed.
Drayton’s attorney had said on the record that he believes the prosecution purposefully delayed the trial, saying that spending long periods of time can “cop a plea,” or force a defendant to make a false confession. This kind of thinking is exactly why the presumption of innocence is so important. Drayton’s trial in 2013 finally cleared him of all charges but one, possession of a weapon.
Putting innocent civilians in jail is not an option for a country that prides itself on its freedom and equal rights. Assuming that people are innocent (especially when there is a quick trial after charges are placed) needs to be a part of the criminal justice system. Drayton’s case showed the simplicity of corruption in cases where the defendant is subtly presumed guilty. If Drayton had been presumed innocent throughout his trial, he would not have gone through the mentally and physically exhausting process of enduring jail time as a pretrial detainee.
In order to be detained, one must be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In a country plagued by delayed trials, the presumption of innocence is clearly a necessity. It is considered to be an international human right under the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If reasonable doubt remains after the trial, the defendant must be acquitted. This is how our country’s system was created, and internationally is recognized as the most equal and fair form of trial.
This ideology is what sets us apart from periods of time where women accused of being witches were burned alive, and people of color had no chance of winning a trial in which they were the defendant. Although scenarios like Brett Kavanaugh’s are exceptionally emotional and very sensitive, any defendant must be proven absolutely guilty, which is often difficult with cases being tried decades after the original alleged incident. The U.S. cannot fall back into a place where discrimination against people is such a basic part of our government as the criminal justice system. It is necessary to remember the danger of our actions if assumptions are made during the process of a criminal trial.