Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Innocent until proven guilty

In his post of yesterday, Rick poses a very sensible question about Oscar Pistorius (which applies equally to many other murderers and wrong-doers facing the law courts). How can the man be so arrogant as to fabricate this unlikely story about self-defence against an intruder, when all the facts cry out against him? Why can he not simply break down and admit that he took an innocent human being's life? And then do his penance?

It would be an honourable course of action, a moral one in which each of us takes responsibility for our actions and atones for the wrongs we have inflicted upon others. However, how many times have we watched people try to weasel out of their responsibility instead, by denying, blaming or deflecting? And how often have we thought, only a true slime ball would sink that low?

The truth is that it's more complicated than that. Our justice system, based on British common law, presumes that an accused is innocent and requires the prosecutor to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This idea was born of noble intentions – to avoid innocents being railroaded by the powerful and wealthy state – and indeed in principle, it remains a noble cornerstone of our justice. As the saying goes, better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted. And we know that even with that stringent burden of proof, innocent people go to jail. Before the abolition of capital punishment here in Canada, innocent people were hanged.

And yet, from this noble principle, over time a twisted perversion has emerged. Never, under any circumstances, admit you're wrong. Never confess to a crime when there's a chance you can get away with it. This perversion surfaces much more often among the rich and the powerful, who already have an inflated sense of their worth relative to others and who can afford the best lawyers and buy the best advice. It applies not just to murder but to lesser crimes like medical mistakes, errors in judgement, drunk driving and the like. Invent the best story you can, lie and keep on lying, make them prove every fact, chip away at every piece of evidence. OJ was the poster boy for this, but we don't have to look any further than our own politicians, with their deny, deny, deny mentality, for more recent examples. When was the last time you heard a politician say 'yes, we used dirty tricks during the election and we apologize for misleading and manipulating the public'? When was the last time they admitted to padding their expense account or calling in a dubious favour?

This amoral behaviour on the part of our leaders and heroes trickles down to our own everyday behaviour. People often deny their guilt; they don't apologize to each other or attempt to make amends. If our politicians can lie through their teeth to further their own ends, well, what's the big deal then? 'I'm sorry for what I did' has become the hallmark of suckers. Only in fiction does the villain break down and confess when the detective confronts him, or collapse on the witness stand under the grilling of Perry Mason. More and more people are developing that sense of entitlement Rick refers to. Me first. Make me. Prove it.

I don't have answers. I think the 'innocent until proven guilty' principle is central to protect us from the arbitrary power of the state, but I wonder about the principle's own power to corrupt and undermine our sense of moral obligation. Have we gone too far? Can we turn the tide, now that so many see nothing wrong with pretence, denial and lies? Can we bring back an old-fashioned sense of responsibility which encourages us all to stand up not only for our rights, but also, for the sake of a civil and compassionate society, to stand up when we know we are wrong.

Only in fiction, perhaps.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara--no wonder people have so little faith in institutions. When I was growing up, becoming a United States Senator was the goal of many a idealist young boy. Now politician has become a dirty work.