It seems like every day there is another accusation in the media about yet another public figure committing some act of misconduct. In today’s world, we rush to judgment and lives are ruined by accusations. No doubt many of those accusations are true and factual. And yet, it is the false allegations that are the most troubling for us as a society.
Over the last several decades, our system of justice has fundamentally shifted away from the presumption of innocence. The philosophy built into our Constitution and its many protections for citizens was that it is better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to be convicted of a crime. Before he was president, and while defending British soldiers in a high profile and very unpopular case, John Adams opined that the protection of innocence was a higher priority than conviction of the guilty.
Today, there is little doubt that the protection of innocence is not the highest ideal for our system of criminal prosecutions. As we have focused more on the rights of victims, our society and our criminal justice system has focused less and less on the rights of the accused. In the meantime, we have made little progress toward being able to discern the difference between true, false and embellished accusations.
When John Adams agreed to take up the cause of British soldiers who shot and killed American settlers, it was at great personal expense. The mob was ready to lynch the accused. Today, defending the accused, even defending the falsely accused, is something that is not understood and lawyers who engage in criminal defense are often villainized. But some simple facts remain that should guide our thinking. First, not all allegations are true. Second, we live in a society that tends to believe that the accused are guilty. And third, Michigan prisons hold plenty of people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Innocence Projects around the nation have cleared many people convicted of extremely serious crimes like rape and murder. Since 1989, over 2,000 people have been cleared of convictions for crimes they never committed. Many of the falsely accused were in prison for decades. What is most shocking is that many confessed to crimes they did not commit and many were convicted in cases which involved police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct and forced guilty pleas. This tells us more about our society and the system of justice than those who faced false allegations. What is most concerning is that these exonerations are mostly based on DNA evidence that clearly established the actual innocence of those convicted of horrific crimes. We have no way of knowing how many others were actually innocent but did not have the benefit of DNA evidence able to be re-examined.
When we assume that someone is guilty as a first response, we run the risk of getting it wrong. And when the system gets it wrong, lives are ruined. How do you repair the life of a man (or woman) who went to prison, lost his reputation, his career and his family due to a false allegation? The simple fact is that you don’t. You can’t. Perhaps our society needs to re-examine our roots. And perhaps Ben Franklin was right when he said that it is better that 100 guilty escape than that one innocent person should suffer.