DO WE REALLY APPLY THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE?
We all pay lip service to the idea that a person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent. But do we really mean it? The weight of public opinion concerning the recent accusations against the Duke University lacrosse team, Barry Bonds, and Michael Vick seems to indicate that we as a whole do not practice what we preach.
Early reactions were overwhelmingly against the accused Duke players and in favor of their accuser. As to Bonds, a USA Today/Gallup Poll from earlier this year showed 72% of baseball fans believe he has used illegal steroids. And just last month, a Rasmussen Poll showed that Vick had fallen from being one of the NFL’s most popular players to a 57% unfavorable rating due to being accused in a federal indictment.
And the presumption of guilt does not just apply to the court of public opinion. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 205 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States since the first in 1989. 142 of those exonerations have been won since 2000. 205 verifiably innocent people convicted; how many more in cases where there is no DNA evidence?
But by far the most egregious example of the presumption of guilt is the treatment of persons accused of Driving While Impaired in North Carolina. Under NC law, a defendant charged with DWI who registers more than .08 or declines to submit to chemical analysis loses his driver license immediately for a period of 30 days, without yet having been convicted of anything. And under certain circumstances, the vehicle of an accused can be seized and held until trial. Even if the person is ultimately acquitted, he still must pay towing and storage costs.
As part of the overhaul of DWI laws last year, a database is being compiled by the Administrative Office of the Courts allowing internet access to the DWI conviction rate of every individual district court judge throughout the state. Media coverage and comments from politicians, including the governor and the chief justice of the state supreme court, all implied that judges should get the message there is no excuse for acquitting a person accused of DWI. As elected officials, judges face intense political pressure to convict all DWI defendants. It is more important than ever that we defense attorneys stand up to this attack on the constitution I believe most judges want to do the right thing, and it is my job to forcefully remind them to apply the presumption of innocence and other procedural safeguards.
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