Friday, July 23, 2010

“Innocent until proven guilty”…the lie

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defense."

Unfortunately, though this is a noble and admirable concept designed to protect citizens from unjust prosecution and incarceration, it is not always conformed to in truth by the law enforcement and judicial powers-that-be in our nation today. How is this whole system supposed to work? Ideally, when it is alleged that an individual has committed a crime, the burden of proving that allegation rests upon the Prosecution. Here enters the idea of being “innocent until proven guilty”. It must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant did indeed commit the crime of which they stand accused. The Prosecution has the privilege of presenting their case first, and then the defendant is permitted to present his/her defense. The defendant may employ a wide variety of evidence and call witnesses to testify in order to contradict the Prosecution's accusation. The defendant then has the right to have a jury decide their fate, based on all of the evidence presented. In a perfect world, the truly guilty would be proven so and the truly innocent would go free. In the "gray areas", there would be cases where a crime was committed but it was perhaps a lesser crime than the defendant was charged with...but that would be in a perfect world, in which we certainly do not live.

In this less-than-perfect world in which we live, the scenario may look something like this:

An individual is suspected of committing a crime, so the District Attorney files a charge. The defendant will appear for arraignment on the charge, at which time they will plead either “guilty” or “not guilty” and bail may be set. If the defendant cannot pay the required bail amount, they will be remanded to jail where they will then sit until their case is decided one way or another. Here is where it gets interesting! You might think the Prosecution has already done a great deal of investigation in order to ascertain that there is support for a criminal charge against the poor sap who is now stressing out in a tiny little jail cell, but in actual fact at this point the investigation has barely begun. Did you catch that? They just started. They have decided that the defendant did indeed commit a crime, and now they are going to go find the "evidence" they need to prove their case. So in fact, the defendant is NOT "innocent until proven guilty" at all...they are already presumed to be guilty as sin and will sit incarcerated for months oreven years while the wheels of justice slowly turn.

In San Diego County, 94% of felony charges result in either a conviction at trial or the defendant agreeing to "plead guilty" in exchange for a sentence they can tolerate. For example, to someone facing a serious charge carrying the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence, signing a plea to a lesser charge and serving perhaps only a few years sounds pretty good…even if they are innocent, and especially if they have already been sitting in county jail for a long period of time. This is how people who may truly be innocent end up with felony convictions, parole headaches, and the social stigma of having pled guilty to a crime.

Thus, the U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate and the highest documented jail and prison population in the world. I suspect that’s largely because the judicial system has forgotten that citizens are to be believed to be innocent until and unless it can be unequivocally proven that they are guilty of a crime. To date, this author personally knows of more than ten private citizens who waited for more than two years for their cases to even come to trial...and one is still awaiting trial three years after the date of arrest.

The wheels of justice turn slowly indeed...and sometimes they fall off altogether.

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