Presumption of Innocence: Crumbling Cornerstone of American Criminal Justice

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.