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The Presumption of Innocence is Worth Protecting No Matter What the Cost

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Jemma Beale was sentenced to ten years imprisonment after it was found she had made repeated false rape allegations. 

In February 2013, Vassar College student, Xialou “Peter” Yu was accused of sexual assault by fellow student, Mary Claire Walker. The accusation stemmed from an incident occurring twelve months previously in which Walker had accompanied Yu back to his dorm room after a party and initiated consensual sex. Walker herself broke off the coitus early. She had decided that it was too soon after ending her relationship with her boyfriend to embark on a sexual relationship with another man. She even expressed remorse for having “lead Yu on” and insisted that he had done nothing wrong.

Nevertheless, at some point, Walker decided that she had been sexually assaulted and Yu was mandated to stand before a college tribunal. At this tribunal, Yu was refused legal representation, had his attempts at cross-examining his accuser repeatedly stymied, and potential eyewitness testimonies from both Yu and Walker’s roommates were suppressed by the campus gender equality compliance officer. Supposedly because they had “nothing useful to offer.” In what can only be described as a gross miscarriage of justice, Yu was found guilty and summarily expelled.

Unfortunately, the kind of show trials that condemned Yu is not entirely uncommon in American colleges and universities (and, like many social diseases, are starting to infect Australian campuses, as well). They are the result of years of unchallenged feminist influence on upper education. These institutions have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the feminist lie that every single woman who claims to be sexually assaulted must be telling the truth.

The problem begins with those who make public policy. The US Department of Education has been seduced by the ludicrous idea that modern, western societies are a “rape culture.” They have brought into the lie that one-in-five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, despite the fact that this statistic (which conveniently seems to come up with exactly the same ratio no matter where it’s used) comes from an easily disproven web-based survey.

This survey, which was conducted at two universities in 2006, took only fifteen minutes to complete and had a response rate of just 5466 undergraduate women aged between eighteen and twenty-five. Furthermore, it was poorly formulated with researchers asking women about their experiences and then deciding how many of them had been victims of sexual misconduct.

Regardless, the lack of credibility that this survey possessed did not stop the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights from laying out guidelines for handling reports of sexual misconduct. Among these recommendations was that reports of sexual misconduct should be evaluated on the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the more traditional “clear and convincing evidence.” This radical shift in standards of proof means that accuser only has to prove that there is a reasonable chance that a sexual assault occurred rather than having to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

It would be an understatement to say the college and university rape tribunals – and the policies that inform them – violate every legal principle and tradition of western law. American colleges and universities have created an environment in which male students can be stigmatised as sexual deviants with little to no evidence aside from an accusation. These tribunals not only violate standards of proof but the presumption of innocence, as well.

That these tribunals have decided to do away with the presumption of innocence should hardly come as a surprise. After all, the mere idea of the presumption of innocence is antithetical to human nature. It is natural for human-beings to presume that someone is guilty just because they have been accused of something. As the Roman jurist, Ulpian pointed out: the presumption of innocence flies in the face of that seductive belief that a person’s actions always result in fair and fit consequences. People like to believe that someone who has been accused of a crime must have done something to deserve it.

The presumption of innocence is the greatest legal protection the individual has against the state. It means that the state cannot convict anyone unless they can prove their guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. We should be willing to pay any price to preserve it. And we certainly shouldn’t allow extra-legal tribunals to do away with it just to satisfy their ideological proclivities.

WHY I AGREE WITH THE DEATH PENALTY

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February 3rd last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Ronald Ryan (1925 – 1967), the last man to be hanged in Australia. Since then, the general consensus has been that the death penalty constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment. Contrarily, however, it is the opinion of this author that the death penalty is not only just, but a key part of any justice system.

There are two main arguments against the death penalty. First, that it is an exceptionally expensive form of punishment. And second, that the death penalty leaves no room for non-posthumous exoneration.

The first argument is one of economics, not of morality or of justice. It does not argue that the death penalty is immoral, only that it is expensive. What this argument suggests is that a price tag can be placed on justice. That the most important factor determining a case is not whether justice is served, but how much money it will cost.

The way a society punishes murder is reflective of the value that society places on a human life. The life of a human being is not something that can have a time-based value placed upon it. It is something that has immeasurable value and purpose. The Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, a man responsible for the death of seventy-seven people, received a sentence of just twenty-one years for his heinous crimes. A society that decides that the value of an individual’s life amounts to only one-hundred days is one that has no respect for the sanctity of life.

The second argument carries a great deal more weight. It is an undeniable fact that innocent people have, and continue to be, executed for crimes they did not commit. In the United States, prejudice against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, and other people often meant that justice was not as blind as it should have been. Furthermore, in an era before DNA evidence, convictions were based upon less reliable physical evidence and eyewitness testimony. And such evidence naturally carried a higher rate of false convictions.

There are two problems with the innocence argument. First, the advent of DNA along with other advances in forensic science has meant that the possibility of executing an innocent person is very low. DNA may not be foolproof, but when combined with eyewitness testimony and additional physical evidence, it makes a guilty verdict all the more concrete.

Second, the innocence argument is not an argument against the death penalty. Rather, it is an argument against executing an innocent person. It only applies when the condemned man is not actually guilty of the crime he has been convicted of. What it does not address is how a person whose guilt is certain beyond all possible reasonable doubt ought to be treated. When an individual’s guilt is that certain the innocence argument no longer carries any weight.

There are two primary arguments for the death penalty. First, that there are crimes so heinous and criminals so depraved that the only appropriate response is the imposition of the death penalty. And second, that the death penalty is an essential aspect of a just and moral justice system.

That there are crimes so heinous, and criminals so depraved, that they deserve the death penalty is self-evident. Carl Panzram (1892 – 1930), a thief, burglar, arsonist, rapist, sodomite, and murderer, told his executioner: “hurt it up, you Hoosier bastard, I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.” Peter Kürten (1883 – 1931), also known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, told his executioner that to hear the sound of his own blood gushing from his neck would be “the pleasure to end all pleasures.” Finally, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (1942 – 1994) was convicted of forcibly sodomising, torturing, and strangling thirty-three boys and young men. The question, then, is not whether or not any individual deserves the death penalty, it is whether or not the state should have the power to execute someone.

The answer to this question is undoubtedly yes. It is frequently forgotten, especially by humanitarians, that the key aspect of a criminal penalty is not rehabilitation or deterrence, but punishment.

In other words, what makes a justice system just is that it can convict a person fairly and impose on them a penalty that is commensurate with the nature and severity of the crime that person has committed. What separates the death penalty from extra-judicial murder is that the condemned person has been afforded all the rights and protections of law, including due process, a fair and speedy trial, the right to trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and so forth, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, or gender. When a sentence of death is imposed upon a murderer, it is not a case of an individual or group of individuals taking vengeance, but of a legitimate court of justice imposing a penalty in accordance with the law.

What makes the death penalty an integral part of any justice system is not that it constitutes a form of revenge (which it does not) or that it may deter other individuals from committing similar crimes (which it also does not). What makes it just is that constitutes a punishment that fits the crime that has been committed.

12 ANGRY MEN

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This week for our cultural article we will be examining the classic 1957 courtroom drama12 Angry Men.

BACKGROUND

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12 Angry Men is based on a television play inspired by Reginald Rose’s (1920 – 2002) real-life experience as a juror on a manslaughter case in early 1954. It was first aired on CBS’ Studio One in September 1954.

It was inevitable that the television play would result in a film adaptation. With Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) and Rose acting as producers, and with Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) acting as director, the resulting film was filmed in under three weeks and made for a paltry US$340,000 (US$2,961,823.49 in today’s money).

THE MOVIE

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12 Angry Men is a small film in every sense of the word. Twelve jurors are locked in a room on the hottest day of the year to decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As per the law, the vote must be unanimous. Initially, all but one, Juror Eight (Henry Fonda – the only real star in the movie), vote guilty.

It’s not that Juror Eight thinks the defendant is innocent, but that he isn’t sure. He argues that the boy had an inadequate legal defence and that they, the jury, ought to examine the evidence more closely.

Initially, he has trouble persuading the other jurors to change their vote. But, as they begin to examine the pieces of evidence, more and more of the juror’s find room for reasonable doubt. The film ends with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict.

ANALYSIS

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12 Angry Men stands out in an era of sweeping epics and technicolour. It is a small, minimalist, black and white film shot mostly in real time. The mood is created through the creative use of camera angles, camera lenses, and editing.

At the beginning of the film, there are long, unbroken takes filmed from above with wide angled-lenses which give a sense of distance between the characters. They are dominated by the task ahead of them. As the film progresses, the takes become shorter, the camera moves steadily from above to below the action, and the focal length is decreased. This makes the film feel more claustrophobic. No longer at the jurors dominated by the task ahead of them, they are dominated by the force of each other’s personalities. As Lumet wrote:

“I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot  to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”

12 Angry Men is primarily driven by its characters. Tension arises from body language, dialogue, and personality clashes. The characters represent an almost perfect cross-section of different personality types and temperaments.

12 Angry Men acts as a crash course on the parts of the US Constitution that guarantee a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.  It is never stated whether the Defendant is innocent or not but instead asks us to look beyond our biases and arrogance and examine the evidence closer at hand. 12 Angry Men symbolises how well the American legal system can work when people are prepared to look beyond their personal feelings use their integrity for its benefit.