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‘Presumption of innocence’ fading away

Michael Swickard

Michael Swickard

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

— Malcolm X

Several times a week there is something in the media that makes me queasy. Someone will have been arrested, so the media give all the details of the crime in such a way that for most people there is no other conclusion than the person is guilty. Every detail is on the front page for all to see, even those details that the police plant in the press to move the case forward.

The presumption of innocence is one of the founding principles of our country. But over the years, citizens have lost that presumption. In the Old West, often the low-down dirty varmint was hung and then given a trial. Example: at Boot Hill in Tombstone, Ariz. is this marker:

“Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882.

He was right, we was wrong,

But we strung him up, and now he’s gone.”

Several times a month I protest the way the media frame the story such that guilt can be the only conclusion. I protest to the media that they only carried the prosecution’s message. They are usually huffy about any criticism since everyone knows that when someone is arrested, they are guilty.

Not the issue

They answer the defendant will get his or her day in court. But that is not the issue. The jury pool is contaminated by the media framing the story from the prosecution’s point of view. The media often are intimidated by the police and if they do not play ball, so to speak, they are frozen out of the information loop.

Further, as some of us remember, there have been several seemingly iron-clad cases against citizens that subsequently turned out to be incorrect. What is remembered is that the person was handcuffed and perp-walked into the jail on nighttime television. It is rarely remembered that the person was really innocent.

Other times the police are fishing and the media work hand-in-hand, such as the attention paid to the boyfriend of Katie Sepich, a Las Cruces woman murdered in 2003. The boyfriend turned out years later to be completely innocent. But he was the number-one suspect for a while. The media cried foul when he hired an attorney… whispering only guilty people do that. Again, he was completely innocent.

Arrest is big news

The arrest is big news. We citizens hear of the charges on the front page with all the personal details, including the name of the arrested person’s dog. Story after story is published that gives the details of the facts of the case over and over again with no prosecution stone left unturned. No exculpatory evidence is mentioned.

Then, the story changes for some citizens and we learn they are innocent of the charges. But many Americans do not see the clearing of innocent citizens since the story of innocence is usually published in the middle of the newspaper next to the bookmobile schedule.

Again, what we are talking about is the presumption of innocence. This is an American legal principle that requires our government to prove the guilt of the defendant, and even more importantly, it relieves said defendant of any burden to prove his or her innocence. If someone decides not to defend themselves against charges, they are still presumed innocent unless and until convicted of the crime. At least that is the theory.

Haste to be first

One of the problems I am seeing is the reporter’s haste to be the first with the story, right or wrong.

The problem is that journalists no longer consider that they are in the middle of a story; rather, they become, in effect, junior policemen because that is where the information is initially. And again, the police and prosecution play the journalists as far as they can to win their case.

Perhaps the Constitution is dead; perhaps there is not even a First Amendment.

Perhaps the journalists who rush to judgment will find themselves one day on the wrong side of the law and truth and the presumption of innocence.

(Michael Swickard hosts the syndicated radio talk show “News New Mexico” from 6 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on a number of New Mexico radio stations and through streaming. Email: