Exploring the Disrespected Presumption of Innocence in the Court of Public Opinion

The entire American justice system has been structured to provide the accused with the status of innocence until they’re proven otherwise. And while the actual courts may respect this idea, the court of public opinion certainly does not. This can make things difficult for those who are wrongly accused of crimes.


What Does Innocent Until Proven Guilty Mean?


We’re all somewhat familiar with the concept of innocent until proven guilty. It’s a common phrase in American legal conversations and one that we’ve all personally tossed around a few times. But what does it really mean?


Perhaps the best way to understand what the presumption of innocence means is to look back at other cultures and how they described the concept. In ancient Rome, the presumption of innocence was expressed through the Latin maxim “ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat,” which means “the burden of proof lies on him who alleges, not upon him who denies.”


The phrase “burden of proof” is a good one. It means the accuser actually has to prove the guilt of the accused, not the other way around. Yet in today’s culture, it often feels as if the accused is tasked with proving innocence. This backward way of thinking creates distinct challenges, culturally and legally – particularly in a world where salacious headlines and sensational sound bites can be shared thousands of times a minute via social media.


There’s perhaps no better example than an incident that occurred last year in Pennsylvania when a high school boy was accused by five high schools girls of sexual assault. The accusations of assault resulted in the boy being fired from his job at the pool, being subjected to juvenile detention, and an array of other consequences that infringed upon his life and liberties. Ultimately it was discovered that the girls’ accusations were false and that they fabricated the charges because they “just don’t like him.” The boy’s parents have filed a lawsuit against the five girls, but irreparable damage has already been done.


The saddest thing about this story is that it isn’t an isolated one. Every single day, false accusations are brought against individuals for crimes ranging from simple trespassing and vandalism to rape and murder. And instead of giving the accused the benefit of the doubt and trusting that the legal system will discover the truth, the general public’s natural inclination is to equate accusations with guilt and shame the defendant before there’s a chance to stand trial.


While it sounds a bit harsh and insensitive, accusations shouldn’t be considered true until they’re proven. They also shouldn’t automatically be considered false. There’s a sense of limbo where balance is required and judgment is withheld.


How to Handle a False Accusation


If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re falsely accused of a crime, you must recognize how disrespected the presumption of innocence is in the court of public opinion and respond strategically. Here are a few suggestions:


  1. Hire an Attorney


You may have heard someone say something along the lines of, “Only guilty people hire attorneys,” but this advice is hogwash. In reality, only smart people hire attorneys. The rest are foolish enough to stumble over their words and assume that the justice system will look out for them.


When hiring an attorney, look for defense attorneys who protect rights with aggressive representation. You need an attorney who isn’t just on the defensive, but is also proactively fighting back.


  1. Gather Evidence


You can’t fight wrongful accusations with emotions. You need evidence (and lots of it). Instead of wasting your energy getting frustrated or overly defensive, use your time and resources to begin documenting everything. This is your best defense.


  1. Garner Support


Do everything within your power to make sure the people around you – your inner circle of family and friends – know the truth. When they believe in your innocence, they’ll become your voice. But even more than speaking the truth, they’ll provide you with the confidence needed to continue pushing through.


Respecting the Presumption of Innocence


It’s hard for the general public to practice and respect the presumption of innocence – particularly in a world where loud headlines grab attention and people are quick to latch on to anything and everything that runs across a newsfeed. However, we must all work together to withhold judgment and to give the accused the benefit of the doubt.


While a large percentage of accusations are rooted in truth, there are dozens of innocent men and women sitting in prison cells wondering how the American justice system failed them. Let’s restore the integrity of this basic American right and give every individual the respect they deserve.


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