Innocent Until Proven Guilty

In a criminal trial, the whole weight of the state is pit against an accused individual. The consequence of a guilty verdict for a serious offense is generally time in prison—a dehumanizing government cage. For capital cases, the punishment can be the ultimate penalty: death.

Putting an innocent person to death is a crime of infinite significance regarding that one person. It is as morally degenerate as any other form of homicide, if not worse as it seduces the society at large through its pretensions of legitimacy into accepting the killing of innocent people. Imprisoning an innocent person is as severe as kidnapping an innocent person. A culture tolerant of a government that does such a thing is basking in some of the greatest moral depravities. It should be regarded as a great evil for an individual to kidnap or kill an innocent person. For the state to do so is at least as bad, but it risks multiplying the evil of the individual act through the false sanctification and widespread societal acceptance of great immorality.

An ethical code that countenances incarceration of the innocent, even in a slim minority of cases, is no bulwark whatever against the ghastliest of institutional oppressions. A people who are not profoundly and unwaveringly outraged by the false incarceration of even a single soul are unfit to be a free people. It is often said that it’s better to let ten guilty people free than leave one innocent man behind bars. The ratio should be much higher, for it is metaphysically possible for the guilty to find justice outside of the U.S. legal system, but it is impossible for the innocent to find it within. Thus is the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” of unparalleled importance. There is no word adequate to describe how unacceptable it should be to a civilized people to see an innocent man caged. Every single legal bias should be given to ensure that the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that a person committed the crime before he be deprived of his liberty or life. If the standard is any lower than that, the prosecution will not only convict innocents in the courtroom, but use the threat of false conviction to obtain plea bargains that unfairly rob the innocent of their freedom. This happens every day in America, because jurors do not take the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” nearly far enough–they assume if the police and prosecutors say something is true, it is true. They assume all the evidence that would demonstrate the client’s potential innocence has been shown them. They assume the state wouldn’t even accuse a person unless it was damn sure the person is guilty. There is an immense literature proving this is not the case. Prosecutors and police frequently lie. But even if they didn’t, even if every last one of them had the moral constitution of an angel sent from heaven, the possibility of honest error should compel jurors to give every single benefit of the doubt to the defense, and to refrain from a guilty vote unless the prosecution really made it’s case beyond a reasonable doubt. Too much hinges on the importance of this principle even to consider casting it aside

When Cory Maye was released after a decade behind bars last week, few took notice. Several years of his time imprisoned was on death row. Yet under the common sense principles of right and wrong, he had done nothing wrong. His home was invaded in the night by police on a drug bust. They were at his duplex to arrest his neighbor over marijuana. When Maye heard the intruders, logically thinking they were burglars, he ran to his daughter’s room and fired at the invaders. He shot a police officer who died.

For this act of self-defense—at the very worst a completely honest accident—Maye was originally sent to die. Thanks to the journalism of Radley Balko and other interested citizens, he was taken off death row, given an opportunity for a second trial, and he was offered a plea agreement: submit to manslaughter and time served. Maybe didn’t want to risk losing another minute from his family. He admitted to having committed a crime that, strictly speaking, he wasn’t guilty of. This is all too common in the criminal justice system.

This is the kind of legal outrage that occurs all the time in America. Maye will never get his ten years back. He was robbed of the most precious of life’s gifts—liberty—for which there is no possible restitution. That he came away with his life was only due to the luck of circumstance. Every American should be aware of the injustice inflicted upon this innocent man and recognize how common it is, and this case should have dominated the news these last couple weeks.

Instead, most eyes were drawn to another legal case, the one of Casey Anthony, who on Tuesday was acquitted of murdering her daughter. Many in the media are outraged. Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who failed to win a conviction against OJ Simpson in 1995, assures us she would have voted to convict Casey Anthony. I’m sure she would have.

But the prosecution in the Anthony case did not make its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Americans should feel a bit safer and freer when a jury does not succumb to the hysteria of the lynch mob and convict someone based only on a little circumstantial evidence, the fact that she lied to the police, and other indictments of her character. It means there are still some people out there who understand how grave it is to damn someone to incarceration or death without 100% certainty that the person is guilty. It means some people out there actually understand the concept of justice. Instead, many Americans are horrified that this is the way our system works (at its most ideal): to occasionally free those who might be guilty so as to ensure against damning the innocent. I shudder at the thought of my compatriots who are outraged when the jury correctly finds against the prosecution, and look the other way as innocent men like Cory Maye are robbed of a decade of their lives, barely escaping death at the hands of an overzealous criminal justice system.

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