C.J. Marshall: Significa: Guilty until proven innocent
Last week, I wrote about how - under the laws of due process - police officers and other law enforcement authorities are required to first be able to prove a person has committed a crime before they can be arrested and processed through our legal system. Now, by contrast, I'm going to talk about what people can expect under systems where due process takes a back seat to the enforcement of the law under less tolerant regimes.
I remember reading a Letter to the Editor in which a person was bemoaning the drug problem afflicting this nation. The author of the letter pointed out that in the 1950s, communist China - a nation which has struggled with a drug problem for centuries - came up with a solution in which drug addicts were given an ultimatum to "get clean" within 60 days. Those who failed to cure their addictions, according to the author, were arrested and executed by government officials the next time they were caught in possession of drugs.
I'll admit, on the surface, this sounds nice and efficient. No expensive trials to worry about, no inmates requiring food and shelter at taxpayer expense; just the cost of a bullet, plus a plot of land to bury the body. What's not to like?
Of course, if you have friends or loved ones who are addicted, things might get a bit more complicated. Particularly if they're not seriously addicted and are capable of kicking their habits if the right programs are available. All this would mean nothing, though, in a totalitarian system which permits no exceptions to the rules, and are often enforced with extreme brutal efficiency.
Also, there's the problem of what happens if YOU are the one accused of breaking the law. Under our system, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and law enforcement authorities are required to obtain the proof necessary to prove that guilt. But under more restrictive governments, just the opposite is true; the accused is presumed guilty, and the burden of proof is on them to prove their innocence.
Another tool which puts limits on our law enforcement system is the writ of habeas corpus. Such a writ allows a defendant - usually through his attorney - to call for a legal proceeding before a judge, requiring the authorities to show what kind of evidence has been filed to justify the charges against him. In totalitarian systems where the writ of habeas corpus does not exist, many people are often incarcerated on vague charges, and often wait for years before their case comes up before a judge. Still another major difference between our legal system and those living under more oppressive regimes is the jury trial. Here, we have the right to a trial before 12 men and women - a jury of our peers - who decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, based on the evidence presented.
Having sat in on a number of jury trials over the years, I'll admit I've viewed the shortcomings of this part of our legal system. There's been times I've seen jurors swayed by the emotion of the moment, as opposed to the hard facts in the case. One incident I'll never forget occurred following a homicide trial in which the jury voted for acquittal, despite the fact the prosecution had presented a solid case against the defendant. When one juror was asked why she had voted the way she did, the woman replied, "Oh he couldn't have done it, he's too nice."
But in totalitarian system, cases are usually only heard and decided by judges - judges who are part of the government and who have a tendency to favor government policies when they had down their decisions. So if a prosecutor brings you before a judge and says "this person is guilty," it's a fair bet that's what the judge is going to find you. No matter how innocent you might be.
So even though our system definitely has flaws, these are flaws I would rather live with, as opposed to the ruthless efficiency of a more totalitarian system. Because although such systems might be better at prosecuting crime and keeping criminals in line, it comes such at a frightful and terrible price to its citizens in general. Or, to sum it all up, as the old saying goes: "It is better to let 10 guilty people go free unpunished, than to prosecute one innocent person for a crime they did not commit."