The Internet is Changing the Presumption of Innocence
It is almost always correct to say that in the present world, the legal phenomenon that a person who has been accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty is a concept only in name, and not something that people genuinely believe. In this era of biased posts all over social media and citizen journalism, the notion of presumption of innocence is under a severe threat.
Even though it is neither mentioned in the U.S constitution; nor does it appear in the Bill of Rights or any other amendment, the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ presumption is a primary concept of the United States’ criminal justice system and one of the citizens’ fundamental rights. It generally originates from the 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments, and made its initial appearance in the Coffin v. The United States case in 1895 in the Supreme Court.
This is one of the principles known too well even to the people that have little insight into how the legal system works, yet it seems to be very poorly upheld. So many people have been condemned repeatedly in public and by the public irrespective of whether or not the law has judged them innocent or guilty. It would be correct to say it was a crucial phase of the law in the late 80s and early 90s. However, today, with the rapid increase of a 24/7 news cycle and instant information, society does not embrace it anymore.
The Changing Nature of Innocent Until Proven Guilty
In the U.S, innocent until proven guilty has been cherished by judges and attorneys for more than one-hundred (100) years. It has saved many people from the injustices of being falsely accused and from serving prison sentences for offenses they didn’t commit. However, in the present U.S, it is losing its popularity, whereby mere suspicion can destroy lives and reputations. It has led to people who get accused of crimes to fear the attention of the public. This is true, especially for politicians, celebrities, and economic actors.
Sadly, the internet has proven to be a very different channel for judging and punishing an accused individual with zero presumption of innocence at play. This is something that the powerful have taken advantage of in their fight to have more power. The concept is slowly turning to ‘presumption of guilt’ or ‘innocent until proven fit to be in power.’ The moment you get accused of crimes like sexual assault, the usual innocent until proven guilty notion that is supposed to be in our minds suddenly disappears.
Many of the social media users often demand that criminal suspects are locked away the moment they are charged even before proof can be gathered, and a hearing held to determine their innocence or guilt. They often have the view that the accused must be guilty. Others tend to feel happy about the downfall of someone they do not support. The internet has eliminated independent thinking and common sense and replaced them with cruel judgments, spreading of incorrect information, and vocal public backlash.
When a large number of people express their emotions about the accused through the internet, the risk involved is that the material may be used by prosecutors to make submissions that the defendant cannot be presumed innocent.
In Virginia, if you are accused of serious crimes that would rapidly tarnish your reputation, for instance, rape, you will need the help of an experienced Fairfax Criminal Lawyer who may act fast enough to ensure your right to presumption of innocence is upheld, and so that you get a fair trial. Also, note that discussing matters in front of the court before making a ruling is an offense. Thus, your attorney can ensure the parties tarnishing your reputation by spreading rumors are brought to justice.
Is the Presumption of Innocence Being Overtaken by Trial by Internet?
Let us be practical, how many times have you browsed through the internet and came across news about a supposed, but unproven misconduct and started asking yourself questions like: ‘how could he do that?’, ‘Did she think she would get away with that?’ ‘How could he be that stupid?’. Having negative thoughts against the accused happens every time. No doubt even a criminal defense lawyer that should have the innocent until proven guilty phase at the back of their mind would occasionally have these thoughts.
The concept of trial by the internet has existed for quite some time now. It is a grave phenomenon that, in most cases, does critical psychological and professional damage to the accused. This is because their stories tend to be repeated, mostly in a negative perception and anything that is often repeated, even though not accurate, gains truth. There is no way you can undo gossip and rumors once they start to spread. The people who use and rely on the internet for news tend to decide guilt before they even hear the facts. Unfortunately, they have set their mind to always side with the victim.
Let’s take the example of a famous pop star who was challenged publicly. In 2005, the pop singer was tried for multiple charges of sexual abuse of minor boys. Even though he was exonerated of all charges, the internet still considers and brands him a pedophile. Not long ago new allegations against the late singer surfaced, but it was too late for him to face the law again.
Another American songwriter, singer, and producer was also charged on allegations of sexually assaulting teenage girls after again having faced charges related to sex crimes and claims of a sex cult.
Innocent until proven guilty or the presumption of innocence is an essential part of one’s right to a fair trial, and it exists as an assurance of a person’s innocence until and if the court proves them guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. However, this presumption is often ignored as we have seen in the cases of both singers. What happens is that the media airs or publishes names, then critics on social media judge and defame before even the court passes its judgment.
Being defamed, especially when you are innocent, is hard to take lightly. It damages your reputation, livelihood, and hurts your family and personal health. However, it is possible to sue the defaming party. You would need an experienced attorney to help you recover damages and restore your reputation. A Fairfax Criminal Lawyer may help you file a defamation case and defend your right to a fair trial.
The Dangers of Trial by Internet
When critics on social media take up the role of adjudicating in alleged criminal matters, successful brands are compelled to react. For instance, individual radio stations abroad like in Australia and New Zealand and even within the U.S won’t play the aforementioned pop star’s music after the revelation of their documentary film, which documented serious claims of sexual assault against the singer. In the ongoing scandal with the second singer, Spotify has pulled his music down from their playlists. This is a clear indication that corporations are also taking up the role of a jury. In the name of protecting their image and brand, these corporations judge based on criminal allegations before the court does so.
Additionally, the internet causes a turnaround of the burden of proof in criminal cases. Generally, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, which must prove beyond doubt that the defendant committed the crime. When the jury or the prosecuting attorney dwells on the stories on the internet about the defendant in criminal hearings, they tend to shift the burden of proof from the petitioner to the defendant. This results in a substantial burden of proof on the accused, increasing the innocence gap for them to quash so that they can be exonerated.
In this situation, the interrogation phase of the hearing dwells so much on the information from the internet and not on the proof the defendant can provide to prove themselves innocent. Additionally, the final verdict ideally depends on the ability and capability of the accused to refute the accusations of the claimant. The burden of proof reversal in criminal cases is evident due to internet exposure.
The Jury Should not be Impartial in Their Role
When the jury is conducting a trial, it is only fair that they reach their verdict depending solely on the proof presented in court so that irrelevant material that’s not subjected to testing in the courtroom does not unjustly influence their decisions. While it’s challenging to ensure the judges aren’t exposed to stories from the internet concerning the case, they can only conduct a fair trial if they do not see material that can form part of the basis for their decision.
A judge may be tempted to google information on a case to see the opinion of the public and base their judgment on that opinion. Additionally, a judge may sentence a defendant solely because of the comments they made on a social media platform that may not be related to the case. When this happens, the trial should be aborted, and the judge should be criminally prosecuted to help send a message on the importance of the court on impartiality.
Internet exposure can also affect attorneys, whereby you may find the prosecuting attorney using what people say about you online, or the remarks they made on your social media account against you. When facing criminal charges, it is crucial to have an attorney who will ensure your rights are upheld to the letter. If you are in this situation, and you feel the judgment was delivered based on online influence, seek help from a Fairfax Criminal Lawyer. They may be able to appeal the case and help you get the deserved outcome. At no point should a judge be influenced by what they read online when passing judgment.
The concept of the presumption of innocence means the judge must consider the evidence and show it to a jury before they can enforce the rule of law; that the defendant has committed an offense. The concept should be applied only in a court of law and not in the court of public opinion. Even though they are different, a defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt in the two courts.
If, as the public, we believed that the defendant is innocent until the court proves beyond doubt that they are indeed guilty, spreading false information online castigating the defendant would be the last thing to do. Additionally, as earlier stated, the presumption of innocence means that any person charged with an offense should be given the benefit of the doubt. The benefit has to start from the moment we hear, read, or see the accusations against the person and has to continue until we hear, read or see that the jury has convicted the defendant after a fair trial.
Even though the court is prone to error, it is only right that we leave the duty of assigning guilt to it instead of public opinion. This is because courts were designed with this objective in mind; to make decisions founded on proof instead of emotions. We are not disputing the fact that public opinion through the internet plays a role in creating awareness of specific topics like sexual abuse, but the public doesn’t have the right to determine impartiality and no or little power to substantiate the credibility of supposed truths.
Protecting the Victim is Not the Same as Presuming Innocence
We all know that the judicial system can’t be perfect. We might know of high-profile cases where the accused got off when they should not have. That does not mean that the presumption of innocence is not a fundamental component of our freedom and democracy. Think of the many people that have been accused of crimes but received no presumption of innocence and those who don’t get that right when dealing with the police. Always remember that protecting victims of crimes have nothing to do with persecuting the accused without convicting them.
The Internet is Changing the Presumption of Innocence