The presumption of innocence dates back to 1895, with the findings of the Supreme Court in the matter of Coffin v. United States. Considering that the world’s oldest living human was born in 1899, this legal doctrine is more long-standing than any of us. And yet, there are troubling signs that the term “presumed innocent” is not nearly as venerated as we might think.
The negative connotations surrounding the term “lawyering up” is a good example. Why would a person who has done nothing wrong need a lawyer? Isn’t retaining the services of an attorney an admission that crimes may have been committed?
The answers lie in the fact that we lock our cars because it’s a simple way of protecting ourselves. We sign leases and contracts to ensure that parties live up to their agreements. And we hire lawyers because the legal system is fraught with hazards for those who do not know the rules of the game.
Kick ‘Em When They’re Up
Whenever high-profile public officials engage the services of an attorney, the press makes hay out of this development. Scandals sell newspapers, as much as anything does these days. It drives public interest, and feeds the sort of “dirty laundry” feeding frenzy that Don Henley sang about so many years ago. Guilt or innocence are the polar opposites of each other, but guilt attracts media attention in a way that innocence never will.
The fact is that public officials, like anyone else, have the absolute right to legal representation. An individual making the decision to hire a lawyer deserves no shame for protecting his or her own legal rights. And yet the innuendo and speculation continue to take place, anyway.
One common reason for hiring an attorney is to ward off an impending indictment. A judge in New York once famously stated that a prosecutor could convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, if that was the desired outcome. And unlike the presumption of innocence, the indicted ham sandwich dates from most of our lifetimes, as the term was first used in 1985.
Are Indictments Coming?
Much has been made of the possibility of indictments being handed down during the current presidential campaign. It is important to point out that such indictments–which have not been handed down and may never be handed down–would not, by themselves, be evidence of any wrongdoing. This is because the burden of proof that a crime has been committed always remains with prosecutors.
Looming indictments, or the possibility of them, are usually reason enough for an individual or a business to retain legal counsel. Defendants who have the means to do so would be foolish not to take this step. But taking this action does not–and must not–compromise or undo anyone’s presumption of innocence.
Effective legal representation–without any presumption of wrongdoing–is a time-honored right that belongs to all Americans.
DISCLAIMER: The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem.