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Presumed Guilty

Social Media, the Web and the Presumption of Innocence

In these days of instant communication, we hear a lot about “fake news.” But apart from the jabs going back and forth in the political arena, real people are affected daily based on allegations that sometimes emanate from a single social media post or news story on the web that may – or may not – be true.

At the core of our criminal justice system lies the concept that each of us is innocent until proven guilty. The presumption has been called the “golden thread” that runs through any concept of justice. It goes back hundreds of years, was embodied in the English common law, and exists today under the heading of due process. What it means is that in a criminal case, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But proof in a courtroom and proof in the news are two entirely different things, and the web has stepped up the problems associated with accusations, some of which may be completely unfounded, being taken as truth by those who read about them.

Nowhere is the issue of the “presumption of guilt” more evident than when there is an allegation of sexual misconduct. As with other criminal charges, some sex cases do not result in a conviction. The reasons vary, and they include lack of evidence that the defendant committed the offense for which he was arrested. Nevertheless, when people hear about a sex crime arrest, the news is often posted all over the internet, sometimes with pictures of those charged (but not convicted). In a recent report out of Mesa, Arizona, for example, the pictures of 24 men were posted in the newspaper after they were charged with solicitation of minors after yet another police sex sting.

In Hollywood, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, the news has become filled with allegations that destroy careers in a matter of hours, based, in some cases, upon a single media article or social media post. An example is what happed in the case of actor, author, director and social activist George Takei. In November of 2017, a former model told a single reporter that Takei had drugged and groped the model in an isolated incident that supposedly took place in 1981. The story went viral, and although the alleged event was older than half the earth’s population, it transformed Takei, within hours, from a liberal hero to a “pervert.” Six months later, the accuser backtracked on his claims, changed his story, and effectively exonerated Takei. But in the meantime, the damage had been done.

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