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Commentary: Innocent until proven guilty


Once upon a time, there was a quaint notion that someone accused of a crime was considered innocent till they are proven guilty. I’m not sure where we ever got such an idea.

Oh, wait a minute. It goes back at least as far Ancient Rome, was always a part of English common law, and has been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. 

Many years ago, when I began practicing journalism, it was drummed into me that since this was fundamental, and since innocent people are sometimes accused of crimes, we ought to assume in the course of writing and broadcasting that people are, indeed, innocent until proven guilty.

However, we seem to have given this up. Today you are automatically presumed guilty, sometimes even before formally charged. True, once in a while, an anchor person will say somewhat impatiently, after slamming somebody, that, quote, “of course they are legally innocent until proven guilty.” Not that anybody sophisticated really believes that.

There was a corollary proposition that went along with “innocent till proven guilty,” which is that we should try to avoid jumping to conclusions. This ethical imperative also seems to have been repealed, though I am not sure when or why.

This has been bothering me for a long time, but I thought of it yesterday, when a Grosse Pointe businessman named Bob Bashara was charged with first degree murder in the death of his wife early last year. This has become our state’s ultimate tabloid tale.

It involves allegations of multiple hit men, sordid affairs, and an alleged sex dungeon. The charges against Mr. Bashara may not be surprising, since he has already been convicted of hiring a hit man to kill a hit man he is now charged with having hired to kill his late wife.

However, Bashara says he didn’t do it, and he deserves a fair trial. But he hasn’t gotten one in the commercial media, most of which have been roundly condemning him without even bothering to mention he hasn’t been convicted yet.

Now, I have no desire to join a free Bob Bashara movement. But he does deserve the presumption of innocence. Haven’t we noticed all the folks convicted of murder or rape who are now being released after DNA testing proved they didn’t do it?

And as for jumping to conclusions -- yesterday afternoon, CNN actually made me laugh out loud. I put CNN on because my smart phone sent me a bulletin saying an arrest was about to be made in the Boston Marathon bombing. After talking about how quickly law enforcement had been able to “solve this case.” Anderson Cooper actually said something like, “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but he probably will want to talk because he wasn’t a suicide bomber.”

Soon after, the FBI told CNN they were nowhere near close to an arrest. Oops. Sadly, the reporters showed no sign of embarrassment. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the nation’s media reported that there was no doubt Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and we needed to go to war.

All we’ve got, really is our credibility. And a basic human obligation to try as hard as we can to be fair.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.