Touchdown for the presumption of innocence

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Nice to know that the presumption of innocence wants to get back in the game. You know, that’s the old rule of law that says you are presumed to be not guilty of committing a crime until the government actually proves that you did. The rule that says a criminal case is to be proved beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston has been in the spotlight lately. That’s the best way I can describe his predicament. He’s not formally accused, charged, or arrested, and really not under any active investigation. There is just a two-sided story, and talk of witness intimidation and a bungled investigation.

What we read on the internet and hear on talk radio is a fierce defense of Winston. People attacking the credibility of the accuser. People criticizing law enforcement for even investigating such a “weak case.” People demanding that the case be closed immediately. Wishes of luck for Jameis – and the Seminoles.

That’s because they like him. And they need him.

I am a native Tallahassean and an FSU alum. Yes, I am happy to presume my team’s QB is innocent. That, and because he has spent the last several months in the limelight in a likable, humble, champion-like way. We naturally gravitate to personalities like his. We naturally want to disbelieve anything bad about people who are important to us.

But I am also a criminal defense attorney and criminal law professor. I naturally presume everyone innocent until I know what can and cannot be proved against that person. Even if Jameis wore a uniform that had orange in it (God forbid!), I would still give him every benefit of the doubt until the solid, indisputable facts were made known. You see, that’s because I presume someone to be innocent whether I like them or not. Sadly, I often worry if the jurors in my trial cases hold that same belief. Some of my clients are not all that likable. I worry about whether jurors will give a fair shake when they don’t know and could care less about my defendant.

Now, compare and contrast the mood regarding Winston with the immediate outcry against Jerry Sandusky. Everyone was ready to hang Sandusky from the minute the story broke. Both situations involve allegations of very serious crimes. Both situations involve allegations from the past, that had been investigated and closed.

So what’s the difference? Creepy-looking old retired coach versus dashing young quarterback (who happens to be a Heisman candidate and the apparent savior of the FSU offense)? If FSU was 4-7 right now, would everyone be as quick to defend Jameis? What if Winston was just an average student with no notoriety? What if he just a nobody?

It’s not just this situation. There are so many other cases that we read and hear about, where someone is accused of a bad crime. Cases where we hear a name or see a booking photo along with just a sprinkling of accusations, and our minds seem to want to immediately convict.

When did we turn our back on the presumption of innocence? When did we lose touch with the most basic of concepts in our justice system? Why do we apply it so selectively?

Maybe we lost touch because we have never been accused of a crime (strange how quickly my clients recall the presumption of innocence when they get into a pickle). Maybe we forget about it when it is easy for us to demonize someone we don’t like, or who we find to be creepy. Maybe we force ourselves not to think about it so that we can enjoy the slow pre-trial roasting of the accused on TV and as fodder for conversation with our friends. Misery loves company, you know. And the less liked you are, the quicker people will think you’re guilty.

It is far past time for us to huddle up with our teammate, the presumption of innocence. Get him off the bench. Put him back in the game where he belongs. Our team – our justice system – will win if we just put the ball in his hands. We must believe in the presumption of innocence, and let the system work the right way. Just about any one of us could be called to serve on a jury one day. Our duty as citizens and jurors is to presume a defendant innocent until proven guilty – whether we like that defendant or not. It is the only way the system will work for all of us.

Take a moment to think about your position on the Jameis Winston situation, especially if you are an FSU fan. Think about how you have analyzed what you know about the case. Think of the arguments you have made on Winston’s behalf, that he’s innocent. Think about how much – and why – you want to see the allegations go away, and the case be closed.

Then ask yourself these questions: shouldn’t I feel that way in every criminal case? Shouldn’t I presume everyone to be innocent, and wait for the case to fully play out before I make a final judgment? If it were me or someone I care about who was accused of something, wouldn’t I want everyone to think of me as innocent? If we immediately cast guilt on every individual who is investigated, won’t our system fail?

Did you say yes to all of those questions? Touchdown! Score one for the presumption of innocence.

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