Friday, August 12, 2016


Posted by Bob, aka Robert Klitzkie

On a recent Sunday some rather inflammatory remarks were attributed to a priest who used them at the end of his homily. It was reported that in addition to some incendiary vocabulary the priest also trotted out that tired old truism, “He is innocent until proven guilty.” Implicit in the phrase are the additional words, “in a court of law.” 

There is much to like about the maxim, “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”  Any person on trial for a crime can take a great amount of comfort from the maxim.  It’s right up there with, “It’s better that one hundred go free than that we hang one innocent man.” For Mr. Joe Ordinary or Ms. Alma Average the two maxims are about equally useful or…useless.  Unless Joe or Alma is on trial for a crime the maxims have no applicability to them.

A criminal trial can result in the loss of liberty for the defendant. In some jurisdictions a criminal trial can result in the death penalty.  So when the life or liberty of a person is at stake extremely high standards are a good thing even when the occasional John Gotti can skate.

You won’t find the magic “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law” language anywhere in the Constitution. In fact, you won’t even find “guilty” or “innocent” which shouldn’t surprise because a criminal case doesn’t even determine “innocence.” Only a guilty/not guilty verdict comes from a jury in a criminal case.

The maxim is an important aspect of our criminal justice system but only very gullible people would conduct themselves on an, “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” basis.  Here’s an example: 

The till at Joe’s Cup o’ Joe comes up about $30 short everyday that Ima Crook is the cashier.  No one but Ima has access to the cash register and Joe maintains an accurate cash count.  Joe complained to Alma, “I’m going broke.  Every day that Ima works I’m short about thirty bucks.” Alma chuckled as she said to Joe, “You haven’t fired Ima yet?” Joe reacted in righteous horror as he said, “Alma, Ima hasn’t been found guilty in a court of law! How can I fire her? How could you suggest such a thing! Ima’s innocent till proven guilty in a court of law.”

Of course the point is that it is nonsensical to use the appropriately extreme high standard applied to criminal trials to the important decisions that we cannot avoid as we proceed through life. We have to make decisions dealing with credibility,  truthfulness, validity and even culpability in accordance with our own lights by evaluating such evidence as is available, circumstances, our understanding of human nature, credibility of those involved and an absence of gullibility like the kind that will put Joe’s Cup o’ Joe out of business.

[Bridge for sale; Manhattan-Brooklyn, no down; easy terms; no credit check. Contact Bernie Madoff, FCI, Butner, NC.]

O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of his wife, Nicole, and an unfortunate waiter named Ron Goldman who happened to be in the wrong place
at the wrong time. If you watched the trial on television or the recent TV reprises you developed your own sense of whether OJ “did it.” The jury found OJ not guilty—end of story, right? Nope, wrong. In a civil case brought by families of Nicole and Goldman the jury found Simpson liable to for $35.5 million for the wrongful deaths. So where was Joe Ordinary with his mantra, “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law?”  The maxim was no help to OJ because civil cases are far different.

The Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide a plethora of protections for defendants in criminal cases, e.g. the right against self incrimination, protection against double jeopardy, right to counsel (even for indigents), due process and of course a presumption of innocence, none of which are available to defendants in civil cases.

Civil cases are cut from different cloth from criminal cases. Wrap all the constitutional protections up in a package, nicely tied together with legal red tape and you have a criminal justice system that makes it difficult to deprive people of their life or liberty even before one considers that the package is sometimes duly  ventilated with loopholes. 

The passage of time provides what some consider a loophole.  If Ima Crook quit her job at Joe’s Cup o’ Joe on suspicion that one of her coworkers was about to rat her out, prosecution for theft might lie. However that possibility has an expiration date. If the cops wait too long even Ima’s signed confession wouldn’t allow for prosecution because the statute of limitations would have run. Committing a criminal offense in such a manner that discovery of the crime is properly attenuated comes very close to the legendary commission of a perfect crime because passage of the requisite amount of time bars prosecution forever.

A realistic appraisal of the maxim, “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” is that it something of great benefit to criminal defendants and to society as a whole in that it is one of the bulwarks of protection of our liberty from the occasional vicissitudes of our government. If, however, you treasure the meter of the maxim to the point that it is your touchstone to guide you through everyday life; better you don’t open a coffee shop.

And when someone attempts to persuade you that you must conform your activities, dealings with others, judgments and perceptions to an “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” standard, watch out! That someone is trolling for gullibility.

When I sat down to work on this post I was going to set forth all of the priest’s inflammatory rhetoric, identify the church and the time and day of the Mass. Of course I was going to identify the priest by name.

Then I came to my senses.  After all:

 “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

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