If you’ve lived in America for a while or at the very least studied our legal system, you have more likely than not heard the expression “innocent until proven guilty” and sometimes added on, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is one of the most important facets — if not the most important — of the American legal system. How could a country be considered “free” if it regularly allows innocent people to go to jail? But if “innocent until proven guilty” is the standard, then why are so many innocent people convicted in the United States every single year? Most of us, if asked, would say we believe that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Why then, when being a part of a jury made up of people no different from you and I, do so many people fall short of those standards? Maybe we — as humans in general — have difficulty living up to the principles we set for ourselves.
What are your principles? You probably have a lot of them. Most of you probably either had them instilled in you at a young age or gave a lot of time and a lot of thought to the process of developing them. Usually some combination of both. Our principles are important to us. We defend them, share them, study other people who have similar principles and use them to influence the policies we support in government or society.
That should mean that when we, in daily life, are faced with decisions that relate directly to our principles, always stick by them, right?
In my experience — and I’m referring to myself just as much as anyone else — probably not. One specific example in my life that I can point to (and what sort of gave me the idea for this column) is the custody situation of a friend of mine. From a “principles” standpoint, I am a firm believer in shared custody. I believe, pretty much regardless, that both parents should get unsupervised time with their children because both parents are still parents of the child. Also, in all honesty, I do not trust a custody judge to make the right judgment in that situation nearly as much as I trust the families of the child or children to work something out on their own, as rocky as that may be. The legal system should just be there to ensure both parents have access to the child or children.
That being said, this is not the point of my article, but a way to preface how I failed to live up to the title of the article and why such failures — in my opinion — are a bigger problem than we all might imagine.
When my friend finally broke it off with their significant other and co-parent and brought up custody, my first response was this:
“You should get full custody.”
Was I a hypocrite for thinking that way? Most likely I was, but I did not see it in that way at the time. What was my (flawed) line of thinking? It was along the lines of, ‘That’s for general situations: situations where we don’t know the details. This one’s different.’
What was I doing wrong? I was trusting my judgment over my principles. I thought that, regardless of what I believed, this was a completely different situation which required an entirely different course of action. Why was this wrong? In short, humans — especially younger ones like myself and most of you — are very, very bad at making judgments. Could I have been right? Maybe, but in all honesty, probably not.
Why? Well, amongst many other reasons, I’m biased. My friend and I consider each other to be like siblings (with the exception of the fact that we can actually stand to be around each other, of course). She calls my parents “Mom 2” and “Dad 2,” and we talk for probably an average of an hour per day, if not more. Her former partner on the other hand is someone I’ve only seen a handful of times and probably would not recognize if he sat right next to me.
So was I biased in making my decision? My friend certainly seemed to think so.
Is this the only situation I would be biased in? No. How many situations would I be biased in? Probably all of them and unless you’re the A.I. grammar software reading this, you probably would be too. We’re only human. We have feelings and emotions and experiences. We are going to have people that we consider to be “favorites” and there are going to be some people that we hold (sometimes unfair) biases against for a myriad of often minor or imaginary reasons.
This is why I believe it is important for us to not only have our principles but stick to them. It makes it so we do not have to revert to trusting our often-flawed judgment. We can gain a general understanding of the world around us and use that to the advantage of everyone.
How does this factor into juries, wrongful convictions and criminal law? As I previously said, juries in the United States are made up of people no different than you or me. They watch the news as we do, they have friends and enemies as we do and they have strong opinions like we do.
How many times have you turned on the news, heard about some random person on trial for some horrible crime and judged them as guilty knowing nothing but a few sensationalized pieces of information given by the broadcaster? How many times have we judged someone we don’t know based on a faceless narrator’s opinion? If people in general are that quick to make judgments about those that we do not know, what makes us think that the same exact people will magically be any different when serving on a jury? How many jurors vote “guilty” based on what they think happened and not based on the evidence of the trial? How many jurors make up their mind before hearing all, or any, of the evidence? How many vote guilty, as my editor said when I pitched this, “because…why not” in their minds?
My point here is not that juries are a bad thing. What could we have besides them? My point is simply this: since the burden is on all of us as citizens to be potential jurors and decide the fate of the accused in court, we have to put our feelings aside. We, and this applies to me maybe as much as any of you, have to put our natural desire to be the smartest and most deductive aside. We have to put our personal feelings about the defendant or the victims aside. The only thing we can trust is our principles. Is this person guilty? Are you sure? If you can’t be sure, then you just might be sending an innocent person to jail.
Ross McDonnell is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected]
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Hi, I’m Lauren Sasala, a senior journalism student from Toledo. I’m also the editor in chief of The Kent Stater and KentWired this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important news about Kent State and the Kent community. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.