While the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” also known as the “presumption of innocence,” isn’t explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution (though it is part of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a key document of the French Revolution), it is long considered one the most fundamental principles of the American justice system.
In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Coffin v. United States that “the principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
While we can only hope that this principle is properly implemented in the criminal court system, the degree to which it is absent in another key court — the court of public opinion — is shocking.
In much of the mainstream media — as well as in the minds of many members of the public — being arrested is sufficient reason for the suspect to be deemed a criminal.
When the accused is an elected official, presumption of innocence is virtually non-existent.
A classic case was when Raymond Donovan, then-secretary of labor under President Ronald Reagan, was forced to resign in 1985 after being indicted on charges that included seeking to defraud the New York City Transit Authority of $7.4 million. Two years later, he and his co-defendants were acquitted on all charges.
In an impromptu news conference held in a corridor outside the courtroom, Mr. Donovan posed a famous question: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
President Reagan issued a statement at the time, saying, “I am happy to see this verdict. I have never lost confidence in him.”
But no one offered Mr. Donovan his job back.
Republican Senator Joe Bruno was the New York State Senate’s majority leader for 14 years before stepping down in 2008. He was first tried for fraud in 2009, and acquitted of five charges and convicted of two, which were, in turn, overturned on appeal.
Prosecutors refiled those two charges, leading to another trial. A year ago, after a legal battle that took more than five years, it took a jury only four hours to acquit the former leader of the New York State Senate of federal fraud charges.
Now comes word that yet another Republican Senate majority leader is facing legal troubles. During his more than three decades in the State Senate, Dean Skelos has earned the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of residents across the state.
It is inexcusable that word of a federal investigation involving Senator Skelos was leaked to the press weeks ago, and a report of an impending arrest was made public days before it was scheduled to occur. While it was once common practice for journalists not to release names of suspects before charges were filed, it is highly unfortunate that this is no longer the case. But it isn’t only the media that is to blame; it is deeply troubling that the office of the federal prosecutor investigating the case has allowed the leaking of such information — clearly intended to humiliate the senator — to take place.
It is noteworthy that only weeks ago, a judge took this same prosecutor to task for public comments he made regarding the case of another high-ranking elected official who has been indicted.
District Judge Valerie Caproni wrote that the court does not accept “the Government’s suggestion that any prejudicial effect of otherwise improper comments is magically dispelled by sprinkling the words ‘allege(d)’ or ‘allegation(s)’ liberally throughout the press conference or speech, or by inserting a disclaimer that the accused is ‘innocent unless and until proven guilty’ at the end of an otherwise improper press release.”
Her Honor is, of course, right, and as she stressed in her decision, “Criminal cases should be tried in the courtroom and not in the press.”
Mr. Skelos, like other elected officials facing legal troubles, deserves the same rights afforded every American. Not only must he be considered innocent unless proven guilty, but as the case makes its slow journey through the legal system, he also deserves that every effort be made to ensure that his reputation remains intact unless he is found guilty.
As Mr. Donovan found out the hard way, there is no office where those found innocent can go to get their reputation back.