In a quiet moment, the idea of taking a highly scientific poll on the twitters seemed like a good idea. So I did. This was the result:
Granted, the respondents were a select group, and there was no “all of the above” option because that wouldn’t have helped at all. Twitter polls are limited to four choices, so my fifth through 99th couldn’t be included. Maybe my poll wasn’t really all that scientific.
When let loose in the wild, there were a small group of Second Amendment enthusiasts who bitched at my failure to include their pet right in the mix. They had a point, as the right most at risk is often the right you care most about. That was their concern, and my failure to include it reflected my bias.
It’s true. Each of the choices included reflected my bias, something to remember when kvelling about empirical studies that are replete with hidden bias that serves to produce desired outcomes. One reason the top two answers were the top two answers is that they were two of the four possible answers. If I hadn’t included them, they couldn’t be answers at all, so I skewed the results from the start.
And yet, my quasi-scientific poll offers some illumination as to what is pressing on the select universe of twitterers who saw it and voted. Not only do people no longer subscribe to the principle that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but they’re remarkably proud of their feelings.
We saw it here in the comments to posts addressing the presumption. It’s not just the mobs of #MeToo for whom no evidence beyond a teary-eyed accusation is needed to go out and destroy their enemies, but the smugness of certainty that a newspaper or online story about how someone is awful proves they’re awful. A press conference by a prosecutor is taken as indisputable gospel when one wants to believe.
But there’s more. It’s not just that we’ve succumbed to our base, visceral feelings about unproven guilt, but that smart people announce it in their stentorian voice as if it’s a matter of pride that they believe in the guilt of someone as yet unconvicted, for whom not an iota of evidence has been proffered. They demand their right to believe in other people’s guilt. They demand their right to announce their belief in other people’s guilt.
The presumption of innocence is not just a foundational tenet of our jurisprudence, mandated by reason (you can’t prove a negative) and policy (the burden is on the state). but a principle to which we used to aspire, hard as it was to get over our gut feelings that someone was, well, guilty.
Every time someone argues, as someone almost always does, that they are entitled to believe in guilt based on nothing more than what they read and their deep, abiding feelings, the answer is the same. Of course you’re allowed to believe. There’s no crime of premature believing in the first degree, and this being America, each of us is entitled to believe whatever the hell we want, no matter how wrong it may be.
But no one can force you to believe in someone’s guilt when you weren’t a witness to the event, aren’t emotionally tied to it by consanguinity and didn’t keep a keen eye on the evidence presented. You are entitled to be unprincipled, but that’s a choice you make.
Yet, as we’ve learned from death row exonerations where nearly everyone was absolutely certain that the accused was guilty, it’s not necessarily so. No, that doesn’t prove them innocent, but that’s not how our principles work. Once the presumption of innocence is gone, the rest of due process doesn’t really matter all that much.