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The Misunderstood Importance of Innocence Before Guilt and Reasonable Doubt

Posted on November 22, 2012 at 12:20 AM

(guest blogger: Thomas Deitman of Amador Paralegal Services)


It is amazing to me that the two most important keystones of the United States’ judicial system, “Presumption of innocence until proven guilty” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” are also the two most publically misunderstood principles. However the blame for these misconceptions should not be laid 100% at the feet of the general population. Of course, the general public, unless individuals serve on a jury panel, do not become directly involved with “beyond a reasonable doubt” but, for the most part, all do mull over the innocence issue from time-to-time.

There might be a direct connection between the lack of understanding of “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” and how juries may look at “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The question, however, is who is to blame for the failure to understand the concept of innocence verses guilt.

I think that one can make a very good argument that the Constitution, the very document that was written to protect us, creates the conflict that places the accused in jeopardy when it comes to the “court of public opinion”. The conflict is brought on by the people’s rights of speech and assembly and the press’ right to free expression as stated in the First Amendment, and the accused’s rights as stated in both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. In these cases, it seems that the people’s and press’ right are more powerful than those rights given to the accused. This is true, even more so, in high-profile homicide cases and in cases involving children as victims.

So why do these amendments come into conflict? Well, we need to look at how the system works when a person is a suspect, when that suspect is arrested, indicted and placed on trial for a criminal offense. In doing so, we need to start with the way police departments see the outcome of a criminal investigation as different from the way the people or even the prosecution sees it.

In my opinion, police departments build their reputations on what is known as the “Clearance Rate.” That rate is the statistical charting of the number (or percentage) of crimes solved verses the number of crimes committed. How do police departments solve crimes? By arresting suspects. For example, if a certain neighborhood is plagued by overnight care thefts, it is the police department’s job to investigate, lock onto and arrest a suspect or suspects so the thefts stop. At that point, the suspect(s) is turned over to the prosecutor’s office and the issue is cleared.

So why is the clearance rate so important to police? Simply put, police departments are judged on how well and how soon it can clear crimes. Remember, police departments answer to public officials and public officials answer to the constituency. Uncleared crime does little to encourage voters to re-elect sitting officials. In the internal working of the police department, cleared crimes translate to citations for officers, promotions for detectives and job security for the police chiefs.

The same is true for prosecutors. Their job is to get convictions for the individuals that the police send to them. How do prosecutors benefit from convictions? Well it does get criminals off the streets, which the public sees as beneficial to society; but it also creates a success rate for prosecutors who want to progress in the office and to D.A. who may want to be re-elected or have their sights set on higher office.

So, how does all this impact the public’s view of “presumed innocent until proven guilty”? It all comes down to information, both overt and subliminal. Once the police arrest a suspect (especially for a high-profile crime) the press conferences start and the D.A. usually stands at the podium surrounded by a high level police official. The language used is usually highly inflammatory and aimed at the accused and showing great sympathy to the victim and the victim’s family. Sometime during the press conference, a video is aired which shows the suspect in handcuffs, surrounded by all types of law enforcement types as he or she is marched into the jail or courthouse. This display even has a name. It is called the “Perp walk” and since “perp” is short for perpetrator, it gives the impression that the suspect is officially the one who committed the crime.

These press briefings are carried on through the prosecutorial investigation and more and more information is divulged, which only tends to cement in the public’s mind that the suspect is guilty.

Convinced of guilt, the general public holds rallies for the victim and against the suspect, and these get-togethers are covered by both the printed and electronic press and supported by both the police and the prosecution. By now, the court of public opinion has convicted the suspect and sentenced him or her to the worst possible punishment.

After all this, the suspect must now face trial with his or her future in the hands of twelve people who have also been bombarded with all the negative information and who must be able to reason innocence or guilt utilizing the very abstract theory of “beyond a reasonable doubt."

So what is “reasonable doubt”? Remember, during the O.J. Simpson trial, when the late Johnnie Cochran coined that memorable phrase, “If it does not fit, you must acquit.”? Generally most people thought that he was speaking about the bloody glove that Simpson was unable to get on his hand. The truth was that Cochran was using the glove as a metaphor for the entire case brought against Simpson. “If it [all the evidence you have heard] does not fit, you must acquit” was Cochran’s’ way of defining “reasonable doubt."

In his closing argument, Casey Anthony’s defense lawyer, Jose Baez defined “reasonable doubt” in a different way when he told the jury that after all the evidence and testimony was presented, if the jury members still had one unanswered question about the evidence and or testimony, that one unanswered question was enough to create “reasonable doubt”. In both cases the jury members got the message.

The two examples, Simpson and Anthony, both ended on acquittals based on reasonable doubt; I believe that the reasonable doubt itself was based on different issues.

Looking at the Anthony case, I would argue that this case, above most, was decided on about as pure an idea of reasonable doubt that any jury could reach. The prosecution’s evidence did not prove how Caylee Anthony died. The forensic evidence was flawed and highly refutable. The story of the finding of Caylee’s remains was confusing and difficult to put together. Casey’s creation of mythical friends and jobs, while used by the prosecution to try and prove truthfulness or lack of it, could be argued as being caused by other non-relevant issues. Each one of these issues alone was cause for reasonable doubt, but when all are put together the argument for reasonable doubt is overwhelming.

The Simpson trial is a little different yet the jury found enough reasonable doubt to acquit here also. In my opinion, the reasonable doubt in the Simpson case was not based on fact so much as it was based on the LAPD and prosecutor’s office to properly gather and present the facts. It can be argued that the Simpson jury found reasonable doubt not that Simpson did not commit the crime, but that the way evidence was handled and the way the mechanics of the case were handled led the jury to believe that Simpson was a victim of overzealous police and prosecution and questionable honesty on the part of witnesses. Famed law professor and Simpson defense attorney Alan Hirschowitz summed up this type of reasonable doubt when he said something to the effect that the underlying truth may have been that the police and the prosecution tried to frame a guilty man.

The Simpson case, in my mind, is unique in the fact that, to me, such a decision made by the jury to acquit based on perceived police and prosecutorial issues gives even greater strength of our judicial system than does the acquittal of Casey Anthony on pure reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately for the now acquitted suspect, the court of public option does not reverse itself even after the legal verdict is handed down. The public’s lack of understanding of the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not allow it to absolve the acquitted individual. Even after all is said and done, in the minds of the general public, unless a verdict is “guilty on all counts”, the public will never be satisfied that justice was done. Until defense lawyers, paralegals, advocates, and anyone else whose work is to protect the suspect’s rights and to educate the public work harder to clarify the way the court of public opinion impacts the legal system, the flaws in that system will continue to hamper the suspect’s right to a fail trial.


Thomas G. Deitman is a degreed paralegal, presently attending Widener University’s Law Center Legal Education Institute. Tom’s interest in the law extends to criminal defense, post-conviction and death penalty appeals. He is a firm believer in protecting the constitutional rights of those accused of any crime. Tom presently holds student memberships in the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers along with the A.C.L.U. Tom is the founder and owner of Amador Paralegal Services, LLC which is located in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Categories: Problems in Justice System