Although many believe that the U.S. Constitution specifically refers to the phrase, “innocent until proven guilty”, there are no actual words to that effect to be found anywhere within that document. That basic concept, however, which generally arose from English jurisprudence, is implicit in the Constitution because the Fifth Amendment guarantees an individual who has been charged with a crime due process.
According to our system of law, even those individuals who appear to be guilty must still be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Embodied within the concept of due process is our legal system itself, charged with providing the procedural means of carrying out that somber task. Receiving a fair trial, where innocence must always first be assumed and guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt is considered to be the bedrock of the American system of justice.
And yet, innocent individuals are still sometimes convicted on the basis of eyewitness accounts. The reliability of such accounts, however, can be often highly suspect. Ask a group of ten people who may have witnessed an automobile accident, for example, and you may receive as many as ten distinctly separate versions of what occurred.
What we believe we see is often based upon our collective experience of other similar events. And whether we might choose to acknowledge it or not, we are also heavily influenced today by video news accounts appearing both on television and on the Internet. Our minds naturally prefer order to chaos, and we will generally seek to satisfy that preference by sometimes unwittingly reconstructing imperfect reenactments of certain select events.
It would seem clear that the legal system, like many other American institutions is facing crises on several fronts. The current economic downtown does not limit itself to individuals, but also encompasses taxpayer supported institutions responsible for dispensing justice and for serving the logistical needs of the public. Insufficient funding has an obvious negative effect on the trial process within the boundaries of an already overloaded court system. The temptation may be to always be looking to the next case on the docket, thereby rushing into a too-speedy, and often inferior resolution to the matter at hand.
And although the indigent are entitled to, and supposedly should receive the benefit of the same legal treatment as those individuals who can personally afford their own counsel, it is hardly unusual for lawyers who have been assigned as public defenders to plead cases for indigent clients on the very same day they first meet their clients.
Not long ago, the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, released some sobering statistics on capital punishment in the United States. These statistics reveal that 37 men in 9 states were executed during calendar 2008. Almost half of those executions that were cited, or 18 men, took place in my home state of Texas. Nationwide, in spite of what may be our general perceptions to the contrary, 20 white men and 17 black men were executed in 2008.
It would appear that there is in all probability, little doubt that some; perhaps even most of these individuals were indeed guilty as charged. But then there is also little doubt that at least one or more of these individuals was not guilty of the crime for which they were charged.
Guilt by Subjective Judgment
Like many other kinds of systems, it would seem reasonable to assume that the American legal system is subject to eventual breakdown and to falling into a general state of disrepair. While our way of life continues to rapidly evolve, our system of criminal justice stubbornly insists on maintaining that status-quo with all its inherent inefficiencies and a degree of obsolescence than can quite literally cost a person their life.
And so as long as we are satisfied that the legal system is good enough as is, innocent people are going to continue to unjustly serve time in prison and, in some cases, even pay for our own errors with their lives. Of course, because we are all-too-human and thus prone to regularly making mistakes, virtually any system, no matter how technologically advanced it may prove to be, will always be burdened with at least some measure of imperfection.
A Resolve to Return to Humane Treatment and Objective Judgment
And so it should be clear that it is our duty and our responsibility as American citizens to insure that objectivity and humane treatment of individuals prevails and that justice is never lost in the process itself; perhaps being cast aside in favor of us somehow just “knowing” that someone who has been charged with a crime is indeed guilty long before a trial date has ever been scheduled.
If we truly treasure freedom and if we are committed to be steadfast in our resolve to remain the kind of democracy which we hold ourselves out to be, we must of necessity recognize that we can always do a much better job. That then would demand that we work tirelessly to diligently set aside any preconceived ideas and any subjective judgements that we may have erroneously reconstructed which are based on little more than assumption and innuendo.