Innocent Until Proven Guilty
According to the Wall Street Journal, a Florida Keys man is being accused by federal prosecutors of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in a plot inspired by terrorist groups such as ISIS. The defendant, Harlem Suarez, allegedly received a “backpack” styled bomb from an undercover FBI informant, although the bomb was rendered inoperable before being handed over to the defendant. Harlem Suarez has pleaded not guilty in federal court.
Serious federal charges, such as those brought against Mr. Suarez, often receive a large amount of media attention. Media outlets sometimes feature “experts” weighing on the defendant’s alleged motives, discussing the impact on the community, and covering all of the details of the crime. Often the defendant’s mugshot is displayed prominently in broadcasts as well.
With all of the attention focused on the person charged with the crime, and with that person’s mugshot being shown in conjunction with discussions of the crime, it’s probably no surprise that many people often regard the defendant’s guilt as a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, this attitude undermines one of the core principles of the American justice system: the presumption of innocence.
What is the presumption of Innocence?
The presumption of innocence is a legal concept that works hand-in-hand with the burden of proof. Prosecutors can only obtain a conviction in courtroom if they prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime charged. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is an incredibly high bar to meet – much higher than the level of proof required to win a civil case. If a juror hearing the case has any doubt at all about the defendant’s guilt, and that doubt is “reasonable,” then the juror is obligated to vote to acquit the defendant.
The presumption of innocence states that unless the government has actually met their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the legal system (including the jurors) should presume that the defendant is innocent. It exists to protect the defendant against the bias that can occur by virtue of being accused of a crime; it is supposed to ensure that the justice system operates fairly and that the government is being held to the high burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unfortunately, the presumption of innocence can be difficult to ensure, even in low-level cases. Often, just seeing a defendant in the courtroom, opposite the prosecution, and hearing that he or she has been accused of a crime, leads jurors to think that that person probably did it, or he or she wouldn’t be here. That difficulty grows when a trial is high-profile, and when it can be difficult to find jurors who haven’t heard the defendant’s name in conjunction with a crime in a newspaper, on television, or on the internet. For this reason, attorneys will often try to find potential jurors who have not heard much about the case, and therefore may be better able to see the defendant as potentially innocent. Sometimes, this requires picking jurors who live several hours away from where the crime occurred, in hopes that people who aren’t as connected to that particular community may be less likely to have already heard about the alleged crime.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, it’s important to have an attorney that understands the challenges that you face and will ensure that any jury understands that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Contact the experienced Miami attorneys at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.