Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

Oct 9, 2018

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

tags: #MeToo,Kavanaugh,exoneration,Innocence Project

Two neighboring headlines caught my eye last week, proclaiming two prominent social problems.


“‘Robbed’ of His Life by a Wrongful Conviction” tells about the tragedy of Larry McKee. After 20 years in prison, a judge threw out McKee’s conviction for murder, because key evidence had never been given to his defense. Multiple witnesses, including the dying victim, had identified the killer as Hispanic. That evidence had been given to a grand jury, but the prosecutor withheld it from the defense during the jury trial. McKee is black. He is one of thousands of men, most of them minorities, who were put in prison for serious crimes of which they were innocent.


The other story also tells of men who some say are judged “guilty until proven innocent”. Before mocking Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump offered his assessment of the consequences of the #MeToo movement: “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” “You can be somebody that was perfect their entire life, and somebody can accuse you of something, and you’re automatically guilty.”


This is a familiar refrain from Trump, who has himself been accused by multiple women of sexual assault. When his aide Rob Porter was accused of abusing two wives, Trump tweeted, “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” When it was revealed that Bill O’Reilly had settled five harassment claims against him, Trump said, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong. He is a good person.” He also called Roger Ailes “a very good person” after he was ousted from FOX News in 2016.


Are these two situations comparable?


The new ability to use tiny traces of DNA to put individuals at a crime scene has greatly increased the possibility of exonerating innocent people. More thorough oversight of some police departments has revealed long-running scandals, where officers railroaded innocent people with coerced confessions, planted evidence and false testimony. The number of exonerations of innocent people has jumped from between 50 and 100 yearly between 2000 and 2010, to over 150 since 2015.


In 2017, 139 convicted people were exonerated. A majority of them, 84, had been convicted due to misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials, as in McKee’s case. Another 96 people were released through “group exonerations” in Baltimore and Chicago, because police officers had been methodically framing them for drug crimes.


Who are the people who are guilty until proven innocent?


I did a search on “men in prison exonerated”. The first two pages of news stories showed 3 men without photo, 1 Hispanic man and 9 black men, including a Detroit man who spent 45 years in prison. That impression is backed up by more serious studies. The Innocence Project shows photos of 362 cases exonerated by DNA evidence since 1992: a majority of the images are black men. An earlier study showed that about 70% of DNA exonerations were men of color.


A thorough study in 2017 about “Race and Wrongful Convictions” found that a majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are African American. African Americans were the major targets in the series of police scandals that have been uncovered recently.


Are men who were “perfect their entire lives” being unfairly targeted by allegations of sexual misconduct? False accusations of sexual assault and rape are very rare. The FBI estimated that 8% of rape allegations were “unfounded”, which includes cases where there was insufficient evidence to prove a case in court or the victim decided not to go through with a full investigation. A study in 2010 found that the prevalence of false accusations of sexual assault is between 2% and 10%. Very few of those unfounded allegations result in an arrest. False accusations tend to be made by teenage girls trying to get out of trouble, not by adult women describing what happened to them in the past. Over the past two decades, about 15 times as many murder convictions were found to be false as rape convictions.


The problem is the reverse. Women report only a minority of sexual assaults. Various studies have found that between 6% and 38% of men admit in surveys to having sexually assaulted women.


These situations are similar, but not at all in the way claimed by Trump and other critics of #MeToo. In both cases, a privileged segment of American society, white and male, has systematically victimized underprivileged Americans, female and not white, and walked away. The members of the Bronx district attorney’s office, who did not provide “potentially exculpatory evidence” to McKee’s defense, walked away long ago. All of the prominent men who have suddenly found themselves held responsible for their treatment of women, from which they walked away for years, are outraged by their new plight.


The key number is one to remember, especially right now: only about 1 in 20 accusations of sexual assault turns out to be false.


Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 9, 2018

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