When we pick up a newspaper, or read a story by a reporter online, and read or hear that someone has been accused by the state or an individual of violating his or her legal rights, what is our first thought? That they are guilty, of course.
This reaction flies in the face of what has been the law of the land since 1895. In that year, the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Coffin v. United States decided that, based on the 5th, 6th and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution, there is a presumption of innocence of persons accused of crimes.
What does this mean? It means that a person doesn’t have to prove their innocence if accused of committing a crime. It is the responsibility of the prosecutor to prove that they are guilty, and that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The rationale for this is that it is better for someone to go free than to have innocent people convicted. It tries to strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of a community.
So, why does the press give more coverage to the accusation than the presumption of innocence? May it have something to do with the fact that the sensationalism of accusing someone of wrongdoing garners more attention than if the media posed relevant questions for the accuser to address so that the entirety of the situation can be examined? This scenario exists regardless of the race, religion or gender of the participants.
If this presumption of guilt is the new “law of the land,” it is a catastrophic reversal of what has governed our citizens since 1895, and will require courts to adopt new rules to deal with this switch.
Or, the Supreme Court of the United States needs to reestablish the presumption of innocence strongly in an appropriate case to reinforce the presumption, and caution reporters and journalists and the public in general to view accusations as simply that, and not as legal judgments of guilt.