The presumption of innocence

There would be no Easter if the crowd had not decided on guilt and innocence three days earlier, shouting, “Free Barabbas!” Two thousand years later, the crowd still decides between guilt and innocence, life and death. I invite you to read my new article, which was published on Holy Saturday in the CULTURICO.

The likelihood of us being in the position of a groundlessly accused person, and thus experiencing a complete loss of security, is unknown. Many of us, however, live in the blissful delusion that we remain far outside the factors and events that may bring us to such a fate, and many join the mob that, by demanding the ruthless prosecution of crimes, forget the right of the presumption of innocence.
For many years a clapboard sign stood in the small town of Snow Hill in Utah: “Men’s boots can kick up the dust of this place for a thousand years, but nothing man can ever do will wipe out the blood stains of the poor folk who fell here.” It commemorated the massacre that took place there in 1899, known as “The Great Blizzard of 1899”. During this exceptionally severe winter that affected most of the United States, many men who had stolen food were killed. They were killed by bounty hunters on the basis of arrest warrants issued by the judicial authorities of the time. The events of Snow Hill led to a public condemnation of the judiciary’s use of bounty hunters.

The need for security is one of the most basic human needs. Since the dawn of time, people have been trying to eliminate not only threats posed by the forces of nature, but also those posed by others. It is precisely from a fear of the unwanted actions of others that we have created laws, on the basis of which we prosecute criminals who pose a threat to our safety. Crime rate is one of the most important indicators used to measure the well-being of people living in a particular country or city.

It seems that there are no threats contained in the collective pursuit of the need for security, and that fighting crime is a good thing in itself. Unfortunately, it only seems like that, and it’s not just about the old days in the Wild West. Equally, in communities living in countries with developed democracies, the pressure to eliminate crime often takes the form of an auto-immune disease in which the organism’s immune system destroys its own cells and tissues. Likewise, a society concerned about bestial crimes destroys individuals in an effort to restore safety.

The Innocence Project – an American non-governmental organization – has used DNA tests to launch an appeal against convictions in a trial where DNA material had not been analyzed. As a result, it turned out that the system failed the accused in at least one of the following six ways: eyewitness misidentification, invalid forensic science, false confessions, unreliable police informants, government misconduct, or insufficient public defense system. The Innocence Project has helped in acquitting 375 convicts for crimes they never committed, 21 of them facing the death penalty. The total number of years served in prison by these convicts was 5,824. In the persuit of security, society has deprived these people of their secure lives.

The search for security is not the only reason why innocent people are punished. The urge to punish and retaliate has even more serious consequences. Even though people do not rely on the death sentence as a fair punishment and it is a declining event worldwide, it is still responsible for the loss of innocent human lives. Members of the Innocence Project believe that one in nine death sentences in the United States is given to an innocent person, but no one knows exactly the scale of this phenomenon, as DNA tests only show us an outline of its true size. The figures collected by The Innocence Project show the vast amount of harm that society is doing to such an unjustly accused person. Does security really have to cost so much?

The data collected by The Innocence Project show not only the scale of false accusations, but also indicate the fundamental biases accompanying the identification and conviction of suspects. As much as 60% of all their cases related to black people, 31% Caucasian, 8% Latino, about 1% Asian American; less than 1% Native American and less than 1% others, which reflects the stereotype of a criminal still present in many people’s minds. According to their data, innocent black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent white people. Data collected by The National Registry of Exonerations confirm this woeful stereotype. While African-Americans make up only 13% of the US population, 47% of known exonerations are related to them. This stereotype is probably shared by law enforcement officers, because of the more than 149 unarmed people killed by the police in 2017, 49 were black, according to Mapping Police Violence. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, cases of black people exonerated from wrongful murder convictions were 22% more likely to involve police misconduct than similar cases involving white defendants. Studies have shown that black people, Latino people, and communities of color are more likely to be stopped, searched, and suspected of a crime — even when no crime has occurred.

But it’s not just race that influences how the justice system treats its citizens. Social class is of no less importance. Those from lower economic strata are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for crimes than are more affluent individuals (1). White-collar crimes have traditionally been treated less severely by the criminal justice system than street crimes and poor perpetrators receive more severe sentences than affluent ones (2). Of course, we will not answer the question of whether they are jailed illegitimately or not as there is no reliable data to address this. Regardless of whether someone has been convicted rightly or wrongly, we will not find out unless there is an appeal trial. There is no superior institution that would verify the validity of judgments and provide such data. The fact that the poor are arrested more often than the rich shows that they will be brought to trial more often, and this must statistically lead to more frequent court errors. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the arrest is confirmed only by a court judgment, the validity of which cannot be verified. It’s a vicious circle.

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