The “presumption of innocence” is key to the American Criminal
Justice system. United States Supreme Court decided as much when it issued
its opinion in the case of
Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895). The
Coffin opinion is cited as the case that established the presumption of innocence
of persons accused of crimes; as well as establishing the interconnectedness
between the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a criminal trial, the accused is entitled to have the jury presume
his innocence unless the prosecution proves, beyond a reasonable doubt,
each and every element of the offense for which the accused is standing
trial. In that sense, the presumption of innocence is a necessary part
of reaching a verdict that is beyond reasonable doubt.
What is guaranteed in a criminal court however, is not guaranteed in the
court of public opinion. Now that blogs and Social Media have replaced
local news papers and bulletin boards, what may have been simple small-town
gossip in the past is now fodder for social media shaming on a global
scale. In an intensely competitive online marketplace, journalists, bloggers,
and pundits often scrape the bottom of the barrel for attention-getting
headlines – also known as “click bait.”
For example, here’s a post that was recently run on Jezebel.com.
Jezebel, a subsidiary blog of the Gawker Media network, self-describes
as: “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.”
In the post titled
“Woman Who Commissioned ‘Ghost’ Photos With Dead Daughter
Now Charged With Girl’s Murder,” Jezebel blogger Barry Pechesky begins by remarking:
Would you like a morbid and horrible story to start the day? Here have
this one about a North Carolina mother who, weeks before she and her boyfriend
were arrested on murder and child abuse charges in the death of 2-year-old
Macy Grace, commissioned a set of photoshopped photos of her and her ethereal
daughter in a cemetery.
At the end of the post, Pechesky notes that the Mother and her boyfriend
“are each charged with first-degree murder and negligent child abuse
inflicting serious bodily injury. Both are being held without bond.”
His conclusion is the red flag that indicates Pechesky has assumed the
Mother murdered the child, and that fact makes the Mother’s request
for commemoration photographs morbid and “click-worthy.” Pechesky
accepts the photographer at his word without considering the photographers
motive in disclaiming his role in the story.
Clicking through to the local news articles cited by Pechesky reveals the
hired photographer received a lot of negative feedback for “donating”
photographs to the Mother. The photographer claims that he gave the Mother
the photoshopped photos at no price because he felt “sorry for her.”
Without examining the completely contradictory nature of the photographer’s
reasoning (how does he stay in business if he feels sorry for the family
members of the deceased when his business
is to photoshop them together?), Pechesky dropped the juiciest quotes into
his blog post and published it on a platform with a broad international
and national audience.
With the proliferation of social media and headline-sharing, it is more
likely than not that potential jurors in the Mother’s case will
be exposed to this and other reckless, speculative commentary. Even if
the Mother is found not guilty at trial; the blogs, news stories, and
other media created will linger forever.
Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the Mother’s decision to
commission photoshopped photographs of the child would be relevant to
whether she participated in the murder or aided and abetted the murder
of the child. If the evidence is not relevant, then the evidence is not
admissible (or it can’t be used) at trial.
Next time you are tempted to share a shocking headline about a baby in
a microwave or listicle mocking “crazy” defendant mugshots,
remember that the arrest is only the start of the criminal case, not proof
that the person actually did something illegal or criminal. Every accused
individual has the right to a presumption of innocence.