This article was originally published on June 2, 2017 with Exposure Magazine.
If you are going to participate in discussions about criminal justice, flawed elements of the legal system, or similar subjects, you should know what truly disappoints you. When asked what makes you most mad, do you have a succinct statement that properly communicates your position or are you just riding on the opinions of others?
As a criminal defense attorney, people have asked me on numerous occasions, “How can you defend people who commit crimes?”
The question immediately frustrates me because it means people misunderstand the system and the way it is supposed to work.
Think about the last time a celebrity was accused of committing a crime such as driving under the influence. The headlines didn’t read, “Innocent celebrity facing accusations of a crime” or “Innocent celebrity has been arrested.”
And that’s just where the process begins to break down. If someone is arrested and your first thought of them is NOT innocent until proven guilty, then you are part of the problem.
Of course, there are facts and circumstances that can change your view, that can persuade you to believe someone is guilty, but remember, unless you were an actual witness to a crime, you will never know exactly what happened.
You can speculate, but are you making educated and informed decisions about what happened or are you taking wild guesses to suit your personal beliefs, prejudices and biases?
So, what does this look like in our real-life social and political climate now? Here are two examples: (1) Every time an African-American man is posted in a photo across your television screen while you’re watching the news with a story about his arrest for committing a crime, are people thinking about his innocence? No, but they should be. You cannot deny the minority communities want him to be seen as innocent and not a thug, no matter where he lives or what his financial situation, right? (2) Every time a Caucasian police officer is posted in a photo across your television screen while you’re watching the news with a story about his act of shooting a civilian during a police encounter, are people thinking about his innocence? No, but they should be. You cannot deny the law enforcement communities want the officer to be seen as innocent and not a racist pig, no matter what the ethnic or racial demographic is in the city he serves, right?
That’s right. Read that paragraph again because I am sure it incites a feeling of discomfort. I’m black and it is unsettling for me to write it, but it’s an honest reality we need to confront.
I’m not saying either of these blanket scenarios are right or wrong, but they address one issue: are people really afforded the one guarantee the system promises? That we are all innocent until proven guilty?