“Innocent until proven guilty” is one of the oldest ideals in the judicial branches of government. The idea of innocent until proven guilty in the American legal system goes like this: A defendant is given a fair trial and is subject to the same human rights as everyone else. Punishment can only be delivered after evidence and final decisions are made in the court.
In other words, the Prosecution must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. With today’s world of technology and media, why do these granted legal protections feel less relevant? Due to the combined power of social media, public perception, and mainstream news, these ideals have been turned upside down.
Innocent No More: Media Influence Inside the Court
What can basic cable or the internet do to a jury? Simple: Weave a guilty charge narrative that could influence jurors, who would only see a guilty person based on what was said by CNN or FOX News. Bill Cosby’s charges of sexual assault on multiple women highlighted the difficulty in keeping jurors unbiased in their decisions. It took several months to get the right jurors and the right location for the trial, which was already problematic given the influence Cosby had on popular culture.
News broadcasts only made matters worse for the courts, with a media frenzy covering every aspect of the case. Channel after channel and website after website seemed to string up a new story every day on the developing trial. As more women became involved, the innocent until proven guilty clause was thrown out of the window.
Bloggers, celebrities, and users flooded social media about the case. Even with sufficient evidence and researched information from the media, the outlook for a fair trial was questionable. Delays made this case difficult to contain even without the words guilty coming from every direction.
The impact it left was almost like a civil war between those who supported Cosby, and those who did not. In fact, anyone who attempted to discuss how innocent until proven guilty works in the court of law only became another target to others.
— gunsta33 (@gunsta33) September 28, 2017
Guilty By The Media
Before ever stepping foot in a courtroom, an innocent person may already be guilty by a chronicle formed from the very people attempting to inform the public of the facts. In 2003, the Chicago Cubs were five outs away from the World Series (at the time, the Cubs had not achieved this since 1945).
With the Florida Marlins up to bat, the Cubs were at a 3-0 lead. With a swing to the stands, outfielder Moises Alou goes for the foul ball. A few of the crowd reach out, but Steve Bartman gets the catch. A few innings later, the tides had turned, and the Cubs lost. Bartman, on the other hand, would soon lose his innocent life of privacy and safety.
FOX’s broadcast would replay the infamous catch several times on television. People who watched from their couch called friends at the stadium. In the story that already written itself, the blame was soon put on Bartman. Escorted by security and police, Bartman would receive death threats, and all his personal info was distributed on MLB message boards.
Whether intentional or unintentional, the guilty sentence by the media changed Bartman and his family’s entire life for the worst. Apologies for Bartman’s woes are still ongoing. Last year, he was gifted a World Series ring by the Cubs as a way to make up for more than 10 years of ridicule.
These events all stemmed from an American pastime. Imagine the harm of a guilty sentence handed by the media on someone falsely charged with child abuse or rape.
Even When Proven Innocent…
Statistically, false charges of sexual abuse are difficult to measure. Research on college campuses found that these false reports occur at a rate of 2 to 10 percent. However, it is also a point of contention since charges that are dropped by the victim do not really mean nothing had happened.
Even so, victims of false charges find it difficult to live a normal life again, and the media only expands the damage. An online article on someone charged with rape becomes a one-sided story. Even when the case is dropped or insufficient evidence could not produce a guilty verdict, it’s too late.
One male student accused of raping a friend retold his life before and after the charges were dropped. He lost friends, his job, and was kicked out of his university. Guilty was not the verdict, but it was for everyone else who heard or saw the news on a computer screen.
Witch Hunts on the Innocent
It takes one misunderstanding to be out forever, which was also the case for one man who tried to do a good deed. In Lakeland, Florida, a man was helping a girl find her parents during a ballgame.
As the child panicked, the man carried her through a local park before being hit by the daughter’s father. Of all the eyewitnesses interviewed by police, only one person saw him helping the girl find her parents.
Incident at Southwest Sports Complex.
On June 24, at approximately 3:35 p.m., the Lakeland Police Department responded…
Facebook posts from numerous witnesses claimed that the man attempted to kidnap the kid, and he was now labeled a child predator. False information and speculation of the incident were already online, and only part of the story was clear enough to the rest of the world— he was a guilty man.
Even after being cleared of any charges by police, the good Samaritan left Lakeland with his family. Without facing a jury, one man who tried to be a hero was already guilty on someone’s post, and the hunt may never cease. Even when he had already been proven innocent.
Defenses and Changes for the Innocent
As fake news and other falsified information become more mainstream, distrust has only been heightened. For better or for worst, the media’s negative reception can bring more efficient and well-researched news into the forefront. It also indicates that the public is questioning information before acting on the offensive.
As for the guilty and innocent trials of misinformation on the likes of Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media, it’s a different story. Recently, Facebook has been blamed for spreading fake news in click-bait articles. With a large user base, people are consuming stories that could be erroneous or not based on any documented facts.
Dedicated debunkers and fact-checking websites respond to this by dispelling any speculative or questionable sources. People who have been falsely accused of a crime should also try to practice legal defenses of their own. If a picture or post has any weight in spreading libel, the victim is applicable in filing a lawsuit on the individual or organization responsible.
A Guilty and Speedy Trial Online
The one thing that cannot be stopped is the psychology of mob mentality. When people group together, (whether on Messenger or face-to-face) it does not take long for their own independent morals to fly out the window and become one organized attack.
But what the internet did not do is make the clause, “guilty until proven innocent,” a more dangerous reality. The 1960’s saw African-Americans hung, executed, and accused of crimes that they never committed. And yet, mob mentality, idealisms, and misconceptions still made these innocent citizens look guilty to a society with a long history of racial violence. All of this was done without the internet.
It has only become a faster process with technology, and has led to incidents like accidental or misguided sources that have either harmed a person’s reputation or livelihood. There is enough legality for people to defend themselves from written defamation, but when major media corporations produce information that verifies a case with insufficient evidence or puts a deceptive spin on the story, someone could already be guilty on another person’s cell phone.