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Does Last Week’s Anti-Brutality Backlash Harm Due Process?

ARTICLE BY RED JOSEPH

Last week, citizens posted several videos of violent police encounters with Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the footage of Mr. Sterling’s homicide, the victim was forced to the ground and fatally shot by police officers. In neither of the two videos of his death, which are incomplete records of the incident, is there any indication that he responded to police in a threatening manner. So, much of the public has decided that the officers killed Mr. Sterling unjustly. His death has become a symbol of police brutality and excessive use of force.

However, some people however believe that the backlash against these officers infringes on due process, particularly the presumption of innocence.

On July 8, talk show host Sean Hannity brazenly criticized those of us who believe that the police officers acted improperly. According to Mr. Hannity, assuming that these officers acted negligently is unjust because of the constitutional mechanism of due process. We, the public, cannot “[jump] to conclusions” because we have an “obligation” to “wait ‘til the facts are in.” That is, we must respect the spirit of the 5th and 14th Amendments by presuming the officers’ innocence until a judge or jury convicts them of specific charges.

The doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty” is essential given human tendency for error. For instance, in the case of the Central Park 5, five men were convicted of sexually assaulting a jogger in New York City. However, the men were actually misidentified as the jogger’s assaulters. There are also other instances where states have wrongfully killed prisoners for crimes that they did not commit.

In the Central Park case, the absence of public video evidence made drawing conclusions difficult and risky. However, with the deaths of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile, we have video evidence, so it may be acceptable to make judgments about this pending legal case. This is especially true given that video evidence is a mostly objective medium. A reasonable person can conclude that officers may have tried to cover-up their actions since video evidence shows one of them removing a gun from Mr. Sterling’s pocket.

But these conclusions about Mr. Sterling’s death are ultimately unacceptable and immoral to Mr. Hannity. At least, to Mr. Hannity on July 8 of 2016.

On March 11 of 2015, another version of Mr. Hannity smirked and accused Hillary Clinton of illegal activity in the middle of a civil suit and before the conclusion of criminal probes. Mr. Hannity invited two legal analysts on his evening program to speculate over Mrs. Clinton’s use of an unsecure server for classified information. He did not wait for the conclusion of the Associated Press lawsuit against Mrs. Clinton. He did not wait for the FBI or Justice Department to ascertain the legality of Mrs. Clinton’s conduct. Speaking with the two analysts, he told viewers that it was likely that Mrs. Clinton intentionally destroyed her server, or was in the process of doing so. During his program, Mr. Hannity asked “can’t a reasonable person conclude that there was an attempt at deception?”

I ask Mr. Hannity: can’t a reasonable person conclude that these homicides were unjust?

Mr. Hannity is within bounds to draw conclusions about Mrs. Clinton’s conduct from the evidence. As long as he respects Mrs. Clinton’s due process, including the official investigations by the government, he is morally justified in deducing her innocence or guilt or carelessness. It’s within reason for people to make judgments when presented with evidence. A person only crosses the line when they ignore the accused’s rights.

Public evidence means public conclusions. And reaching conclusions about Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile’s deaths is within rational bounds, so long as the public recognizes that more information could prove that the police officers’ actions were justified. Furthermore, the public has a duty to respect our legal system and the outcome of any investigations. We should not shame citizens for their conclusions. But we should criticize them when they ignore due process through vigilantism, stalking or threats.

Jurors and other officials are the only ones who must strictly adhere to innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The rest of us are free to use our reason however we please.

 

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