Guilty Until Proven Innocent

There is a philosophy that I strive to live by that differs from many people.  Respect is something I freely bestow.  A person has to commit a reprehensible act to lose my respect.  Many people believe that respect should be earned.  The latter philosophy appears to be driving our current laws and policies.  But there are consequences when laws and rules are based in distrust and disrespect.  A serious consequence is losing the presumption of innocence.

The first time I was introduced to the “guilty until proven innocent” approach to criminal justice was in 1996.  A young woman had physically assaulted another person and I intervened.  She belligerently stood her ground. In the process of reasoning with her, I brought up the apparently outdated concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, she gave me that “were you born this stupid” look that I have received many times in my life. Her whole attitude towards me changed as she physically relaxed, calmly setting me straight on how our current criminal justice system really works.  This teenager knew the ins and outs of the law with greater accuracy than most attorneys.  It was a game or complex puzzle to her.  She knew exactly how to circumvent the system (oh, if only we could teach young people this level of expertise in math or science, instead of criminal law).  I remain in awe of this young woman.  She did not lose my respect; she was simply playing out the role our culture assigned her.  We parted on friendly terms with my being wiser from the encounter.  Now those that embrace the belief that respect should be earned would find her aggressive, rebellious behavior unworthy of their respect, but that is okay.  She doesn’t respect their value system either.

My unorthodox view of freely bestowing respect has faced many challenges over the years.  One of the recent more disturbing is the movement to harvest DNA samples from American citizens who are arrested, not convicted of a crime.  In a previous blog we looked at whether or not DNA samples are just modern day fingerprints. DNA is the essence of a person and should be treated with utmost respect.  It is not only unique to the person; it connects them genetically to other people.  So, harvesting DNA of a presumably innocent person is not only an invasion of privacy by the government for that specific person; the government is setting the stage to invade the privacy of those genetically linked to that person.  My value system dictates that setting policies that intentionally strip innocent people of their privacy is a reprehensible act.

Many will argue that DNA can prove a person’s innocence.  But shouldn’t we put the burden on proving guilt?  It would certainly be easier for law enforcement to have everyone’s DNA in a bank.  That way when a crime is committed, you just have to go to the bank to find people to link to the crime scene.  Of course DNA can be unintentionally or intentionally transported to crime scenes.  The burden of innocence would be put on us to explain how our DNA got there.  But better to lock up a hundred innocent people, rather than let one guilty person go free. Let’s hope that last statement is satirical instead of visionary.

© 2011 Fawkes-Lee & Ryan

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