This is the United States of America. In these United States a person is presumed innocent of a crime until such time as evidence proves otherwise – and that’s done in a court of law before a jury of peers taken from the citizenry.
I raise this issue because we are increasingly subjected to what I call, “Trial by Media.” Case in point: the current hot button topic about the alleged murder of 24 Iraqis by Marines in the city of Haditha. Did these Marines “snap” as one report suggests? Or is this “business as usual” as some politicians accuse? Or were these Marines exchanging gunfire with bad guys who are notorious for using women and children as shields, or simply as canon fodder so as to make Marines in particular, look bad, and the United States in general, to be in an awkward position on the international scene. There will be ongoing investigations, possibly some arrests, followed by a military court martial where the accused would be tried based upon the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Allow me to explain a few things here. First, a court martial is “a court consisting of military or naval personnel appointed by a commander to try charges of offenses by soldiers, sailors, etc., against military or naval law” (Webster’s Dictionary). Second, the UCMJ is the body of laws and legal procedures by which our military determines violations leading to arrests, trials and, if found guilty, imprisonment and/or less than flattering discharges from the military (The UCMJ replaced the Articles of War in 1951). And third, the city of Haditha, Iraq is a known snake-pit of insurgents and other bad guys, a city where even children celebrate in the streets the beheadings that take place there daily. Do not confuse Haditha with Mayberry!
But are we as Americans guaranteed a fair trial? Yes. Are we presumed to be innocent until proven guilty? Ummm – Maybe. “What?!” you say. That’s correct. It does not specifically state anywhere in our Constitution that a person is presumed innocent. The underlying premise of the Constitution affords all Americans this privilege, and it’s basically found in Amendments 5, 6 and 14 of the U. S. Constitution. The 5th Amendment says you cannot testify against yourself. For the purposes of this article, let’s look at the phrase, “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This “due process” implies a person’s innocence and has done so for centuries. As for the 6th Amendment, we are guaranteed a speedy and public trial, and “to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of Counsel for his defense.” The 14th Amendment guarantees an American citizen their civil rights: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
I found it a bit unsettling that the actual words “Innocent until proven guilty,” or “presumed innocent” were not actually in the Constitution. On the other hand, our Bill of Rights was founded upon the “Principle of the Presumption of Innocence.” This is derived from Anglo-Saxon laws and cultures, which provides the person charged with a crime the presumption of innocence. Our rights and laws as Americans are based upon this assumption.
Surprisingly (at least to me), many other democratic nations have these words or phrases written into their rights. Take our northern neighbors for example. In section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it states: "Any person charged with an offence has the right ... to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." France (Yes! France!), in article 9 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of constitutional value, says "Every man is supposed innocent until having been declared guilty," and the preliminary article of the code of criminal procedure says "any suspected or prosecuted person is presumed to be innocent until his guilt has been established." The jurors' oath reiterates this assertion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe basically say the same thing: The Presumption of Innocence.
So let me ask this question: Why are there those in our country, politicians, military, and media, who are intent on accusing, trying, condemning and vilifying these Marines before they’ve been afforded the due process all Americans are entitled to?
Let me ask a personal question: Where do you stand on this issue? Will you withhold judgment until the accused have had their day in court? Or have you assumed their guilt simply because it makes for spicy news sound bites?
And finally, do you remember the “Golden Rule”? That’s where Jesus said to treat others the way you would like to be treated.
If this had been me with an M16 on fully automatic, kicking in doors looking for the bad guys who blew up my friend, I’d sure appreciate you giving me the benefit of the doubt. Until we know the facts, and a court of law has determined guilt or innocence, all Americans should hold their tongues.
Would that those with access to the media would heed this counsel.