Monday, August 22, 2011
by Anne Bremner
A prominent world figure is arrested for the brutal rape of a hotel maid after he has boarded an Air France flight, perhaps hoping he can flee to a country without an extradition treaty. Soon after, the accused appears before cameras handcuffed like any common criminal. The news spreads shock and outrage around the world.
"The force of public opinion cannot be resisted," Jefferson said. Except by judges and juries.
Democracy in America is difficult. One of the most important protections in our criminal-justice system is the presumption of innocence. That protection is not necessarily extended to someone tried in the court of public opinion. In a society with freedom of the press, readers and viewers exposed to earnest yet incomplete reports of an incident jump to conclusions, especially when the accused's version is not immediately provided. The fallout lands not just on the accused, but also on family and friends.
Thomas Jefferson writes to Lafayette in 1823 about America's freedom of the press: "... The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
Fortunately, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. takes seriously his responsibility to examine evidence and make decisions to bring charges based on reason rather than emotion.
Many situations in life are ambiguous and can't be adequately explained or understood in a 90-second TV report, ten column inches in a newspaper, or breaking news on the Internet. The truth is usually complex, and people often don't turn out as bad as they are made out to be.
As a practicing attorney, I would not ask a jury to make a decision based on such limited information. In a trial it can take days, weeks or even months to set out and explain relevant facts so jurors can take as much time as they need to review and carefully analyze what was presented.
In this case, savvy news consumers need to recognize the natural limitations of what they are seeing or reading. When a report sounds too simple -- or too one-sided -- ask yourself who didn't get a chance to tell their story.
Don't join the rush to judgment. Pursue justice instead.
*Originally Posted May 27, 2011; NewYorkTimes.com