Guilty Until Proven Innocent: How TV Forces the End of Jury Trials

It’s not often I go into heavy stuff like this but reading an article about a brewing scandal in Formula One got me thinking about trials. The article made note of the fact that the law says that all people are considered innocent until proven guilty. But I think that the idea that people are always considered innocent until a judge or jury of their peers says otherwise has become antiquated and no longer holds true in modern society. I think that TV crime dramas and the 24/7 news media obsession with crime stories means that most people think that a person must be guilty if the police have charged them. I think that means we should soon see the end of jury trials in our innocent until proven guilty society.

Let’s start with some personal background first. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know anyone who is a full-fledged lawyer. I’ve never been to law school but took a semester of Canadian law in Grade 11. I’ve never been charged with a crime or been to court for a trial for any reason. I have been on the receiving end of a couple of parking tickets though. Long story short, I have no personal interest in the goings on of our legal system.

However, it seems that anytime I turn on the TV to anything even tangentially related to the law, we’re finding out all about how people must be guilty. US cable news channels that have shows that touch on big stories in crime, like Nancy Grace, routinely crucify anyone suspected of committing a crime. If memory serves, Chris Benoit was evil for killing his wife and son because of “roid rage” despite all sort of anecdotal evidence that it doesn’t exist and later proof that dementia was the likely cause because of how badly damaged Benoit’s brain was. If memory also serves, the Duke lacrosse team members accused of raping Crystal Mangum were guilty until proven innocent in Grace’s eyes. The three were later pronounced to be innocent by the North Carolina attorney general because there was no evidence against them.

And what of the case of Tucson shooter Jarod Laughner? The first thing that we heard was that Sarah Palin targeted Congresswoman Giffords on a map and made repeated references to reloading on her Twitter and Facebook pages. Naturally, it must have been her fault this happened. Glenn Beck made a reference to shooting liberal congressmen in the head. He also must have been a cause of this. But then we found out that he has some deranged rantings on YouTube. Clearly, Loughner is mentally unfit to appreciate the nature of his actions. And then he goes and pleads not guilty to the charges. Many media members I follow on Twitter followed this thought pattern. Whether they acted as a journalist or media person is not a valid defense. In the media’s rush to judge and even bigger rush to be the first with a story, they influence people’s thoughts as they try to grab their attention.

Dare I bring up the OJ Simpson case? After a jury of his peers found him not guilty of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend, I heard a radio call-in show asking folks if they think OJ was guilty. The overwhelming majority of people said that he should have been found guilty. OJ was found guilty of that recent armed robbery. I doubt I’m going out on too much of a limb to suggest that jurors went into the trial thinking “We’re going to nail him this time.” A lot of that goes back to the suggestion back in 1994 that OJ was guilty even if the jury said not guilty.

Of course, there is proof of the influence of the media outside the court room. How many times have we heard about how horrible a job Barack Obama has done as the President of the United States? The republican media spews it and people buy it as fact. I guess universal health insurance (AKA Obamacare) is the root of all evil. I remember seeing a survey that said a quarter of republicans believe Obama may be the anti-Christ. Where would they get that idea?

I don’t think that “factual” news media is solely to blame for changing how people think about criminals. It was noted a while ago that shows like CSI are changing how people approach jury trials. Seeing what forensic evidence can be culled on CSI has made potential jurors think that every crime must be proven by the clearly scientifically sound forensic evidence because all other evidence is clearly inferior. Before somebody says something in the comments, I was being sarcastic.

From that change in public perception of evidence, it wouldn’t be too hard to see that attitudes regarding the guilt of a suspect could change based on the typical outcome of these shows. How many episodes of your typical crime drama end with the police arresting someone and we go along our merry way assuming that the police got it right? There’s no trial just an ending implying that the suspect arrested is guilty. That’s the outcome of your typical episode of the three CSI shows, two NCISs, Law and Order: SVU Hawaii Five-0 and so on and so forth.

Actually, thinking of Law and Order, despite the fact that there are trials and that the district attorney has a less than 100% conviction rate, it’s probably not helping things either. Sure, not all cases end with a guilty verdict. Some end with not guilty or not guilty because of a specific reason (mental defect, justification, self-defense) or with a plea deal. Still, the vast majority of Law and Order cases end with the police and district attorney getting the right man.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some fictional characters were on the other side of the aisle in the court room. The Defenders is about two Vegas defense lawyers. Harry’s Law, near as I’ve been able to piece together, is about a defense lawyer. Even Sherlock Holmes was occasionally tasked with defending an accused person, though Holmes would state that he only find the truth rather than actively prove a client’s innocence. Recently, however, the trend has been for TV characters involved in law to be finding or putting away suspects rather than defending them.

It’s the influence of TV shows, news or drama, that makes me think that anyone could be reasonably expected to believe that the police are always right. Even a reasonably well-educated schmuck such as myself often assumes that the police wouldn’t pick anyone up unless they had an air-tight case against them. After all, the police on TV are seldom subjected to political and public pressure to haphazardly hurry through an investigation. In my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, a man was murdered and found decapitated in a ravine. The police hadn’t confirmed the victim’s identity through DNA testing as they want to do but they’ve already laid charges. Three days after the arrest of the suspect, the police asked citizens for help finding evidence or the victim’s body parts. That reads as a rush to charge anyone with the Soo’s biggest crime in years.

So we have a news media that is essentially actively promoting a guilty until proven innocent mentality. The entertainment industry wants you to believe in the infallibility of the police, prosecutors and evidence the same way the Vatican wants Catholics to believe in the infallibility of the Pope.

Let’s face it. With TV force-feeding us the idea that officers of the court and law enforcement officers are always right, can we really trust all members of the jury pool. It’s far from a guarantee that all 12 members of a jury will be completely unbiased and uninfluenced by what they see on TV.

4 thoughts on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent: How TV Forces the End of Jury Trials

  1. Thank you for writing this! You have pointed out a very real problem.

    Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.
    Noam Chomsky

    There is nothing more scary than a population in lockstep with the media…1940’s Germany.


    • you are so right it doesnt matter whether or not your guilty its if the citizens will talk about it and if it makes headlines on the news/newspaper or like you said the biggest crime


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