Clearspeak: Judge not, lest ye be judged

— A respected Cazenovian businessman and a long-time Syracuse basketball coach are each accused of separate crimes involving sexual abuse – terrible acts that are difficult to mention in a community newspaper, let alone contemplate.

Regarding the coach, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick recently held a press conference and while explaining that the accused can’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out, nevertheless delivered the following opinion:

“It is not my place to say that Bernie Fine is guilty of anything,” Fitzpatrick said. “It is my place to say the two victims are believable.”

My translation: “As an officer of the court, I can’t ethically say the accused is guilty because he hasn’t been tried and is not going to be tried. But he’s guilty as sin.”

Judge not, lest ye be judged. The presumption of innocence matters.

Prosecutors around the country not infrequently do what Fitzpatrick did at this press conference.

While admitting they can’t prove their case, they nevertheless go before the press and stigmatize the accused by branding him with a presumption of guilt.

This practice is controversial. And it is wrong.

Some dismiss the presumption of innocence as a mere technicality of trial procedure. The presumption, they say, is a rule of evidence to establish who at trial has to prove what.

But it is not a moral norm.

We’re free to condemn even before any of the facts are established in a court of law.

No, we’re not. Like many rules of law – laws forbidding racial discrimination, for example – the presumption of innocence has a normative impact; it reaches beyond legal procedure deeply into American culture and sets a standard for a free people.

The presumption goes to the heart of what America was established to do: preserve the liberty of the individual against arbitrary government interference.

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