The presumption of guilt
Ammianus Marcellinus relates an anecdote of the Emperor Julian which illustrates the enforcement of this principle in the Roman law. Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, “a passionate man,” seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, “Oh, illustrious Cæsar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?” to which Julian replied, “If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?” Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c. 1.
Coffin v. United States. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock principle of criminal justice systems the world over for generations, is really not that ambiguous or in doubt. The presumption has been traced by some to Deuteronomy and there is evidence that it was embodied in the laws of Athens and Sparta. “Better than 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“, says Blackstone [see here for a summary of the history of the presumption].
It’s a catchy phrase: “innocent until proven guilty”. It nicely ties in the other core principles: the burden of proof is on the State; the defendant has a Constitutional right not to testify; each and every element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ve often employed Emperor Julian’s response, reproduced above, in answering the cocktail party question.
It’s all a lie. A big, bold-faced, wool over your eyes lie.
The presumption of innocence is dead, at least in practice. The real presumption, if you must, is that of guilt. Despite the Constitutional and historical directives to the contrary, the defendant “enjoys” a presumption of guilt from the moment of the institution of criminal proceedings.
From the absurdly low standard of probable cause needed to arrest a citizen, to the pitifully slanted pre-trial proceedings, to the trial itself, the presumption weighs heavily against all those who have been charged with a crime.
22tweets, a creation of Lance Godard, asked those who were featured in last week’s Blawg Review one question on twitter. Mine was: “What would you say is the most difficult aspect of being a public defender?”*
As I pondered that past the deadline for a response, I cycled through the regular ills of a pd system: a lack of funding, crushing caseloads. But that’s not difficult. It’s a burden, to be sure, and an impediment, but one that can be overcome.
The most difficult aspect for me, then, is this. This wretched presumption that hampers and stymies and confounds at every step of the way. This presumption that takes what would be an obvious case of injustice and turns it into a fight for a dismissal.
Take it a step at a time: the State (or prosecution, if you prefer) has already made up its mind about the defendant’s guilt. They’re initiating a criminal prosecution. In their mind, they’ve already convicted the defendant. That’s the hand they’re playing from. “Why should I believe your client?” “You think a jury’s going to buy that?” “Oh, that’s his alibi?”
Skepticism and disbelief reign supreme. We have to prove to them that their initial assessment of the defendant’s guilt is incorrect. The burden is shifting.
The media coverage, if any, is almost always slanted toward the prosecution. Unbiased, non-sensationalist reporting is almost non-existent. The press plays a subtle role in shaping the opinions of the jury pool.
But there’s always the trial, you say. A determination of guilt or not-guilt to be made by a jury of “peers”. All 6 or 12 of them are indoctrinated about the presumption of innocence and all vow to uphold the State to its burden.
I have come to believe that that is hogwash. Jurors are smart enough to know what to say. They’ve also been reading the same newspapers and watching the same news. There’s still this cultural divide between “them” the defendants, and “us” the jurors. Someone’s been arrested and is going to trial? Well, there must be something to it or why else would the State waste its time?
The presumption goes to the State. If the State, in its benevolence and infinite wisdom has decided to pursue this matter, then, well…
If you had a client in whose case you believed the State’s evidence could not sustain the burden, would you dare rest without putting on any evidence? Do you have that much faith in jurors?
I have this belief – it may be a naive belief – that most trials are won not because the jury upheld the presumption of innocence, but because the defense overcame the presumption of guilt.
It is human nature to want to hear both sides of a story and then decide which one is more believable. To force the jurors to perform their duty in a manner that is contrary to this human need is merely wishful thinking, no matter how forceful the instruction from the judge.**
The presumption of innocence exists in name only; a lofty ideal that we can thump our chests about and shout from rooftops. Look at this fine example of how just we are as a society.
The real truth, hidden in the backrooms of courthouses and in the ugly, dirty trenches of everyday warfare is quite different. Every morning, the defendant and the defense lawyer face a nearly unsurmountable task: overcome the fact that almost everyone but you thinks your client is guilty.
[*If you have a better response to that question, leave it in a comment. I’d be glad to hear and discuss it.]
[**Maybe, must maybe times are changing with the proliferation of DNA exonerations and wrongful convictions. But I’m not yet convinced. And DNA evidence is surely a double-edged sword for the defendant. Somewhat akin to Rule 34 is the Rule of DNA: If there is DNA, he is guilty. Oh, and Google Rule 34 at your own risk.]