Guilty Until Proved Innocent. And Even Then.

Our 24/7 media culture has created a climate where persons accused of sensational crimes are presumed guilty.

Jim Henley has been back at the gym and thus held captive to CNN Headline News.  He doesn’t like what he sees.

It’s always some vicious creature and a chorus of bespoke savages shrieking their way through a bunch of true-crime stories. At least, I assume there are crimes happening in these tales – the panel is so dismissive of what we used to call reasonable doubt and the rights of the accused that the contrarian in me starts to suspect every element of the official case, including whether there’s a case at all. Innuendo is the rule of the day. When defense claims get aired, it’s so that the panel can glide from laughing at them to raging at this latest effort to “delay justice.” (Justice is a conviction.)


The message of Headline News is that, no matter who you are, if you step out of line in any way, if you cross the authorities, if you draw malign attention, if you anger anyone with access to power or otherwise get caught on the wrong side of convention, you could be Public Enemy Number One for fifteen minutes. Sentence first, verdict already assumed. It’s such a repulsive viewing experience that any decent person will avoid it where possible.

Omitted in the snip is a detailed accounting of a couple of examples; I commend them to you.

I’ve long stopped watching televised news programming but have seen the same thing, oddly enough, on ESPN.  A goodly number of star athletes are also, not surprisingly, thugs.   There is, after all, an overlap in skill sets.   But the Headline News Treatment is widespread and damages the reputations of those ultimately not charged with crimes.

Roughly a decade ago, star Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested, along with two decidedly less famous companions, on charges of murder and aggravated assault in a grisly double homicide case.  The charges against Lewis were soon dropped, in exchange for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice and testimony against his cohorts.   The NFL fined Lewis $250,000.  The details of what happened remain murky.    To this day, though, I continually hear people talking about Lewis having gotten away with murder.

Seven years ago, basketball star Kobe Bryant was accused of rape and charges were filed.  They were dropped, however, when the victim refused to testify.  Bryant settled in a related civil suit but continued to maintain that the relationship was consensual.

This past summer, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault.  For several weeks, his name was dragged through the mud.  Finally, the local district attorney held a press conference announcing that no charges would be filed — but continued with a very lengthy screed to the effect that he thought Roethlisberger was a contemptible swine and likely guilty of the charges.    The NFL suspended Roethlisberger for six games, later reducing it to four, despite the lack of any criminal penalties.

All of those men put themselves into bad situations.  Bryant and Roethlisberger, at very least, engaged in some very ungentlemanly behavior.   But Henley’s right:  We live in a society where being accused of a crime, particularly a gruesome or unusually loathsome one, becomes a public spectacle from which full recovery is next to impossible.  And the average schmo doesn’t have the riches to hide away in large mansions or to pay PR agents to fix the damage over time.

[Commenter Mantis reminds me that I’ve omitted the most egregious of the recent examples:  The Duke Lacrosse Team, who not only had their reputations trashed but had an entire athletic season stolen from them through the work of scumbag prosecutor Mike Nifong and his accomplices in the media, notably the odious Selena Roberts.  Who still gets a back page column in Sports Illustrated.]

This is a widespread phenomenon in our 24/7 media culture.  And it’s not exactly new.  Or, certainly, limited to star athletes.  The family of JonBenét Patricia Ramsey continue to be thought of as murder suspects by many 15 years after her murder.   Only rarely, as in the tragic case of accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewel, is the exoneration so public that it’s universally known.

A quarter century ago, former Reagan Labor Secretary  Ray Donovan asked, after having been acquitted on scandalous charges, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”  He’s still looking.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Media, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    It’s worth mentioning that Lewis was only charged with murder because Georgia law didn’t (doesn’t?) distinguish between actors and accessories. At no time did a prosecutor ever suggest that Lewis stabbed anyone; he just told the limo driver to floor it after the fight and helped hide the bloody clothes. But that doesn’t stop the public from calling him a murderer, which has to be one of the more unfair situations in recent memory.

  2. mantis says:

    Don’t forget the Duke lacrosse team. The media was abetted there by the DA and the inept Durham Police Department, but still.

  3. JT says:

    Let’s not forget this guy as well.

  4. John Burgess says:

    Fiery deaths on-camera are too good for the HLN crew. I am, in general, a pretty tolerant person; that may be why I find their behaviors abhorrent and deserving of the most painful punishments possible.

  5. Tano says:

    Its not just the media hyping stories that is to blame – it is also in large part the rhetoric coming from the right. For as long as I can remember, conservatives and rightwingers have loudly mocked and derided liberals who argue for strong civil liberties protections – for things like Miranda warnings – in general, for having citizens treated as if they were innocent (albeit perhaps under suspicion) until proven guilty.

    The standard lines are that liberals are “coddling criminals” – as if anyone arrested in thereby to be classified as a criminal. Or liberals “care more about the perpetrators than the victims’ – as if, once again, being arrested for a crime means that you must necessarily be the perpetrator.

    With half the political spectrum constantly blurring this line – acting and speaking as if any concern for fair process, and for protecting the rights of the accused is equivalent to a concern for protecting criminals, it is not surprising that the “accused=guilty” equation becomes the norm.

  6. Ben says:

    Agreed that the right-wing certainly seems to make those arguments. Unfortunately, since Democrats are petrified of being labeled “soft on crime”, they end up being just as deferential to police and prosecutors as the Repubs. And the ACLU is demonized for when they occasionally try to stand up for the rights of the accused.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    I find it hard to believe this is a partisan issue. I guess some will look for whatever advantage there might be.

  8. mantis says:


    Have to disagree with you. It’s common for people to assume the guilt of accused people, if the situation fits their preconceived notions. Take, for example, the Duke lacrosse case. I saw a lot of lefties jump on that one at first, condemning the team and assuming their guilt. My guess is that many of them they saw a privileged group of white college students vs. a struggling black woman forced to turn to stripping, and that perception led them to an obvious conclusion. The facts showed that conclusion to be quite wrong.

    It’s the same thing with the right and Guantanamo. I know of almost no rightwingers who do not automatically label anyone held at Gitmo as “terrorists.” Not “accused terrorists” or “suspected terrorists,” but straight up, guilty as charged terrorists. That’s how they justify their support for torture of detainees who have never been put on trial. They assume that since they are detained, they must be guilty (many people of course assume this about regular accused criminals here, as is the point of this post). Nevermind that many have been set free because there was no evidence they did anything, and nevermind the fact that we paid huge sums of money to Afghans for turning in “combatants” with no evidence whatsoever, and many of those detainments could have been the result of nothing more than a family grudge or other personal grievance (as some have been shown to be). They’ve been detained by the military, so they are guilty and don’t deserve any rights.

    It’s not a left or right thing. It’s a human thing. And yes, it’s depressing.

  9. says:

    (doing a 180 from my comment in another thread): Yes this is a huge problem with our current system. It has been throughout Americain history, but I believe it has gotten much worse since the advent of 24 hour news and shows such as “America’s Most Wanted” and even fiction such as CSI and Law and Order.

    I think it has to do a lot with people liking things simple and black and white and the fact that people want to believe that everyone deserves what happens to them. Loss of true journalism that uses press releases over investigation and that prefers narrative over dry facts has a lot to do with it as well.

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    “There is, after all, an overlap in skill sets.”

    You could say the same about the military Jim. In fact I would. Fortunately the officer corps is generally there to provide some adult supervision. They are not principally interested in money unlike sports teams who are not unlike the old big studios in Hollywood who didn’t give a damn what their stars did and had armies of police and pr fixers to make sure none of it got out. Unfortunately, in the military even the officer corps breaks down sometimes. Apparently of 18 members of the platoon being questioned about these murders of Afghan civilians, 14 (including the Lieutenant in command) have take the 5th.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    And of course it’s not just individuals who are found guilty. What about BP and their CEO who was basically hounded out of office over trivia. NBC who have been completely hysterical about this whole issue from day one are still hyping this story and basically misreporting the facts.

  12. Tano says:

    “It’s not a left or right thing. It’s a human thing. And yes, it’s depressing.”

    Well, it is not an ubiquitous human thing. There are people who are dedicated to holding the line – ACLU types. And they seem to be operating on principles that are inherent to liberalism. I do not recall any conservatives ever taking strong and risky stands on issues like this.

    So no, not left-right, but liberal-conservative (its not the same distinction). .

  13. James Joyner says:

    You could say the same about the military Jim. In fact I would. Fortunately the officer corps is generally there to provide some adult supervision.

    There’s some truth in that. Even more so than military service, though, professional athletics — especially football — rewards youth and high levels of testosterone-fueled aggression.