Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2003 / 27 Tishrei, 5764
Why the presumption of innocence does not and should not exist outside a courtroom
Since we do a lot of legal stories on my TV program, again and again, I hear people asking what happened to the presumption of innocence in various cases we cover, from Scott Peterson to Kobe Bryant to sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.
Well, it may sound shocking, but it cannot and should not exist outside of a courtroom.
Think about it: For us to presume someone innocent is for us to say the authorities must have gotten it wrong when they arrested someone. I'm not willing to assume that unless I am a juror. Imagine an evening news piece where the reporter presumed the person innocent. John Doe was arrested today on charges of smuggling drugs, but since the presumption of innocence applies, we must assume the authorities got the wrong person or that it was sugar, not cocaine in his possession.
I'm willing to keep an open mind about guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly in cases where we don't know many of the facts. I view it as an obligation to point out what we don't know. But no journalist, talk show host, or even citizen outside a courtroom should be obligated to presume the authorities are always wrong or lying all the time. The presumption of innocence is a legal fiction designed to stack the deck in favor of the defendant.
Why? Because the authorities have the power to take away someone's freedom. When you have that power, you'd better have enough evidence to back it up. Now I've heard people say that our coverage contributes to the decay of the presumption of innocence inside the courtroom. I'm not going to argue that issue except to say that's what jury selection is for, to ensure that prospective jurors can be fair and initially presume the person innocent. But when authorities make an arrest they are presuming the person guilty.
Inside a courtroom they're going to have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and they may turn out to be dead wrong. But the rest of us can discuss the evidence and even have opinions about it without having any guilt about the presumption.
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JWR contributor Dan Abrams anchors The Abrams Report, Monday through Friday from 9-10 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV. He also covers legal stories for NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Today and Dateline NBC. To visit his website, click here. Comment by clicking here.
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