“Just look at all the FBI agents!”
I recently spent two days in jury selection at the US District Court for my area and learned that there are some people who have no understanding of a fundamental principle of justice — the presumption of innocence. More accurately, I knew some people didn’t understand it, or didn’t believe in it, I just never thought they would say so in open court.
I was one of 44 people participating in the voir dire process, and six of our group were dismissed for stating in one way or another that they would believe the FBI agents’ evidence and testimony over what the defendant argued, precisely because they were law enforcement officials. One in particular made the statement above — opining that the FBI would certainly not conduct a major investigation, then show up in court with a Federal prosecutor, deputy prosecutor, no fewer than four Special Agents and a Paralegal managing a small library of documents “if there was nothing going on.”
More cops = stronger case.
I’ve long since given up on the presumption of innocence being understood, cherished or upheld in the public sphere. Every grainy photo of a man on Facebook with a title “Man accused of murder at large” is trailed by a hundred posts declaring that the “scumbag should be shot on sight” or some variation of vigilante logic.
But to hear the same sentiments, prettified for the setting as they were, was actually a bit of a shock — and I’m on the cusp of my sixtieth trip around this sun. Six of us out of 44 prospective jurors — 14% — not only were predisposed to believe the defendant guilty, but were able to articulate that position in a federal district court in front of a judge, the defendant, his lawyer, several of his family, a half-dozen FBI officials and 43 fellow travelers.
That they could do so with obvious pride and absolutely no sense of shame is probably why I am so gobsmacked.
One guy went as far as to say “After all, the way the world is these days…” as if the guilt of others was a kind of second-hand smoke the defendant inhaled and contracted the same cancer. Another man said “I agree”, to this and got his chance later to explain his wonderful world view in which human beings are naturally inclined to crime and “we’re all guilty of something”.
The judge, an even-tempered older woman with a ready smile but a no-nonsense demeanor probed these people carefully with pointed questions to draw out their positions and make clear what they really meant. She gave them every opportunity to soften their rhetoric, or explain some detail that might demonstrate they could be fair when considering the evidence. But each of them (four men, two women) pronounced themselves loyal to law enforcement no matter the circumstances. One of the women tried to use the opportunity to hold forth like a keynote speaker at a Rotary Club luncheon whose topic might be “The FBI — Our Infallible Guardians”.
The judge shut her down and called her to a side bar to let her feelings be heard.
After considerable time and numerous opportunities, the judge suggested dismissal for cause for each one, asking both sides for any objections. To the prosecutor’s credit, he agreed with her on each count without hesitation.
In another place and time, such judges and such prosecutors may not be in charge of court proceedings. It seems as if there are fewer people like the ones on the bench and the left-hand table, fair and protective of the foundations of justice in our country, and more like those six jurors, every day.
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
For anyone convinced that the presumption of innocence is overrated and over emphasized, I suggest readings from the Innocence Project as a starting point