In the context of American justice, “innocent until proven guilty” means that nobody is legally guilty of a crime until a court proceeding has ruled so after a fair trial. The term is nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights; it flows from the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, requiring that no one can lose his or her freedom or property without due process of law. What it does not mean is that a wrongdoer is literally innocent of a crime until a jury or judge has officially declared that he is. If he did something, he did it, and if we all know he did it, we don’t have to pretend he didn’t or that we don’t.
I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television and get taken into custody on the spot, and still had to listen to broadcasters say he “allegedly shot Kennedy’s assassin” as if it was still just a theory. By this standard, John Wilkes Booth only “allegedly” shot Lincoln, since he was never tried. The fact that a theater full of people saw him do it, leap to the stage and run off derringer smoking, doesn’t mean a thing. He’s as pure as the driven snow, innocent forever.
Well, nonsense, but it is nonsense that the media perpetuates by intentionally or incompetently blurring the implications of “innocent until proven guilty.” The most recent case of this is the Washington Post’s editorial bemoaning the fact that Leslie Johnson, wife of Prince George’s County (Md.) Executive Jack Johnson, cannot be blocked from being sworn in and taking her seat on the Prince George’s County Council despite being charged, along with her husband, with extensive graft and corruption as well as destroying evidence and obstructing justice. Among other things, Mrs. Johnson stuffed $79,600 in cash into her bra to hide it from FBI agents when they arrived to search the Johnson home. The agents found the money in her bra: did she allegedly hide it there?
The Post ever gently suggests that “we hope that she won’t seek to use her council seat as a bargaining chip with prosecutors or allow her case to become a distraction to the incoming county government. It would be in the county’s interest for her to give up the post.” How about just stating that the woman is obviously as crooked as a pretzel, and if she had one shred of decency she would resign her post in the County government since she is obviously both untrustworthy and untrustable. But the Post doesn’t want us to leap to any conclusions, now, cautioning readers, “Ms. Johnson is innocent until proven guilty.”
Now read the Post editorial’s next comment without your jaw hitting the floor, if you can:
“If [Johnson] does not (resign), it appears that she could play the role of kingmaker on the nine-member council by casting a decisive fifth vote in favor of electing incumbent member Ingrid Turner as the next council chair. In return for her support, Ms. Turner had been widely believed to have promised Ms. Johnson the chairmanship of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, the most powerful of the council’s five standing committees. Now, following the Johnsons’ arrest and indictment, Ms. Turner says that she will not appoint Ms. Johnson to chair the panel. But she has not ruled out naming her as a member of the committee, which reviews rezonings and other land-use applications from developers. Ms. Johnson would wield immediate clout by, for example, being able to vote in a critical dispute over setting storm water runoff regulations – which would be crucial in balancing developers’ profits and the environment. How confident can Prince George’s residents be that Ms. Johnson will put the county’s interests ahead of her own on that or any other decision? Given recent events, the reasonable answer is: not very.”
Wait a minute: why “not very”? Didn’t the Post just tell us that she’s “innocent”? If she’s innocent…and innocent is like pregnant: you either are or you aren’t—, then why should she step down at all? Oh, that’s right, I remember: she should step down so she doesn’t become a distraction.
How about writing that she should step down because she is obviously a crook, and if Ingrid Turner appoints her as anything but restroom monitor, she tolerates crooks and is just as untrustworthy as Leslie Johnson? That would be honest, informative, and true.
“Innocent until proven guilty” has to do with state punishment, not logic and common sense. We don’t have to deny what our brains tell us just because we are obligated to respect Johnson’s rights in court. She isn’t really innocent. Innocent people—I think this is safe to say—never stuff $79,600 into their undergarments to hide the cash from the FBI, just as innocent people literally never are seen shooting the back of Abe Lincoln’s head, jumping to the stage and shouting, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” Johnson may plead to a lesser charge, or turn state’s witness against on her husband, or get sprung by a dim-witted jury, but those things won’t make her innocent, or any more fit for office than she is right now.
There is a difference between being fair and being stupid. The press has an obligation to make that distinction clear, if only to protect us from the Leslie Johnsons of the world.