IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Presumption of guilt

Outside the courtroom, the presumption of innocence isn't required.

We continue to get lots of e-mail from people asking the following question: What happened to the presumption of innocence? From Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson, even to Saddam Hussein, many of you are asking why we aren’t presuming these people are innocent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

The presumption of innocence does not and should not exist outside a courtroom. Think about it. For to us presume someone innocent is for to us presume the authorities got it wrong whenever they arrest someone. I’m not willing to assume that unless I’m a juror. It’s a legal fiction that was designed for the courtroom. Since the authorities have the power to take away someone’s freedom, we force them to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and give the defendant the presumption of innocence. The deck is intentionally stacked against the government because they have that enormous power.

It makes a lot of sense. But it makes no sense outside of the courtroom, particularly for our purposes. Imagine an evening news piece where the reporter presumed the person innocent. John Doe was arrested today on charges of smuggling drugs, but since the presumption of innocence applies, we must assume the authorities got it wrong or we must presume it was sugar, not cocaine in his possession.

We’d lose all of our credibility if we spoke in that dishonest fashion. That does not mean we have to or should presume the person is guilty. But no journalist, talk show host, even citizen outside a courtroom should be obligated to presume the authorities are always wrong or lying all the time.

I’ve heard people say that our coverage contributes to the decay of the presumption of innocence inside the courtroom. Well, those kinds of comments are belied by the facts.

In every high profile case, there are plenty of prospective jurors who have not been tainted by media coverage, who don’t know much about the facts and have not developed opinions about guilt or innocence. That was even the case in the O.J. Simpson civil case after the criminal trial had been broadcast around the world. That’s what jury selection is for—to ensure that prospective jurors can be fair and initially presume the person innocent.

But remember, when the authorities make an arrest, they’re presuming the person guilty. Inside a courtroom, they’re going to have prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and they may turn out to be dead wrong. But the rest of us can discuss the evidence and even have opinions about it without having any guilt about the presumption.