Friday, December 12, 2008

PRESUMED INNOCENT

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been indicted by the federal government on charges that include scheming to sell President-Elect Obama's Senate seat for money or other personal gain. Based on published comments and demands that Governor Blagojevich resign, one would think that indictment and conviction mean the same thing. They do not, and Americans should act like we know they are not the same thing.

An indictment is nothing more than an accusation by a prosecutor that the person named in the indictment has engaged in criminal conduct. In the case of Governor Blagojevich, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has leveled the accusations. Governor Blagojevich has been arrested and released on his own recognizance pending the outcome of the case. No persons have been summoned for jury duty in this case, let alone selected to hear the evidence. No trial date has been set. No witnesses have been subpoenaed for trial. Nothing has been introduced into evidence. No verdict has been returned.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. In the United States, a criminal finding of guilt requires one of three things. The accused person must either be tried by a jury which returns a verdict of guilt, must be tried by a judge who renders a finding of guilt, or must make a voluntary and intelligent plea of guilt which is then accepted by a judge. Governor Blagojevich has not been found guilty. He has not made a guilty plea nor been convicted by a jury or judge. Governor Blagojevich is not guilty.

One need not hold a law degree to know that indictment is not conviction, no matter how incriminating the circumstances may be surrounding the indictment. Every accused person is presumed innocent in every criminal case. There is no politician exception, no Illinois exception, and no exception for indictments that level charges of influence peddling. Although the airwaves have been cluttered by calls for Governor Blagojevich to resign from public officials ranging from President-Elect Obama to leaders in the U.S. Senate, there is no requirement that an indicted person resign. Remember, an indicted person is presumed innocent.

The Blagojevich matter is newsworthy because public officials should not seek private gain in exchange for public policy actions and should refrain from attempts to do so. However, the only news is that Blagojevich has been indicted based on secret recordings of statements that he allegedly made at various times.

Whether those statements amount to proof of any crime will be determined according to the rigorous process involved in criminal trials. Will the recorded statements be admitted into evidence? Will there be other evidence that mitigates Blagojevich, or undercuts the credibility of the proof against him? What the evidence will be and whether jurors will believe it are open questions, among others.

While U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald believes that Governor Blagojevich is guilty, his belief is not evidence. Fitzgerald's comments about the case are not evidence now and will not amount to evidence even when (and if) there is a trial. Governor Blagojevich is under no obligation to prove his innocence. U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald must prove every element of every charge beyond a reasonable doubt before Blagojevich can be found guilty. Fitzgerald may believe that he has a strong case. He is entitled to say that he has a strong case. Neither his views about the case nor his comments make a case against Blagojevich. As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald and the rest of us have no right to behave as if suspicion equals guilt. No matter who holds the suspicion, or who is suspected, criminal guilt is always determined by proof. Unless and until that happens, Blagojevich should be treated like an innocent person who has been charged with political corruption.

Political corruption is wrong. The same is true for treating accused persons as if we do not believe our talk about the presumption of innocence. If we believe that suspicions and accusations amount to guilt, we will either stop holding trials or make a mockery of the trials we conduct. If we believe that accusations do not take the place of trial proof, we will stop treating accused persons as if they have been convicted.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. He is presumed innocent of all the charges. Let us respect his right to a fair trial by acting like we understand what this means.

2 comments:

Willis said...

Excellent. The mantra from the media's talking heads continually frame the accused as the guilty. We have seen in some high profile cases the verdict of not guilty being treated as a guilty. The suggestion being that the accused got off by some trick or jury bias. This attitude sets aside all the legal proceedings and evidence. Do we (Americans in general) really believe and have faith in our legal system and the constitutional guarantees? It would be nice to hear "presumed innocent" echoed in our mainstream media.

Gerry said...

There's not much to say but that you're exactly right about this. Thank you for reminding everyone.

Gerry