Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Another thing on CNN last night was a panel discussion on Larry King on the DeLay indictment, featuring, among others, left-wing pundit Katrina vanden Huevel of the Nation. King gave her a lot of rope, but at one point he was badgering her repeatedly with the question, “but you do presume that DeLay is innocent until proven guilty, right?”
Too many people misunderstand the role of the presumption of innocence. It’s a legal rule, which applies to juries, instructing them not to find guilt without sufficient evidence, and to start by assuming the defendant is innocent until that evidence has been presented. In that context, of course, it serves a valuable role.
But the presumption of innocence, even as a social norm, shouldn’t preclude pundits – who after all get paid to look at facts and offer opinions about them – from saying they think a public figure is guilty, if the available evidence supports that conclusion. Vanden Huevel would be quite within her rights to explain why the evidence Ronnie Earle has on DeLay shows that he did what he’s accused of doing.
On the other hand, if the presumption of innocence means anything in the realm of opinion journalism, it means that you can’t assume someone is guilty just because the government says so; an indictment alone isn’t proof of guilt, especially when the prosecutor in question has a track record of indicting Republicans without a sufficient basis to do so.
So, if you want to argue that the evidence against DeLay shows he’s guilty as sin, go ahead. There’s nothing un-American about that at all; to the contrary, we all get to have an opinion about our leaders. But if you want to persuade anyone that he’s guilty, it has to be based on something besides the existence of the charges themselves.
UPDATE: A commenter notes that Democrats like to point out that Democratic Travis County DA Ronnie Earle has indicted more Democrats than Republicans. I’ll let John Fund, writing in today’s OpinionJournal’s Political Diary (subscription only – no link)
respond to that point:

His defenders point out that the 63-year-old [Earle] has indicted 15 public officials in Texas in the course of his three decades as a prosecutor, of whom 12 were Democrats. But that ignores the fact that until the mid-1990s, very few Republicans were elected to public office in Texas and many of the Democrats he prosecuted happened to be bitter adversaries of his.
Among them was Democratic Attorney General Jim Mattox, whom Mr. Earle indicted on bribery charges in 1985. He was found not guilty by a jury and went on to win reelection in 1986, but lost a bitter primary for governor four years later to Earle ally Anne Richards. Another target was Democrat Bob Bullock, the late lieutenant governor and state comptroller. After Mr. Earle conducted an exhaustive investigation of his office but failed to return an indictment, Mr. Bullock compared the prosecutor to “a little boy playing with matches” and sought to curb his ability to conduct open-ended investigations of state political figures.

Reading between the lines here, Richards was and is a liberal, and Bullock was known to work across party lines with George W. Bush, so I’m guessing that some of this history is about the spilt between the Richards/Jim Hightower liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party, and the rapidly-dying conservative wing that produced people like Martin Frost, Phil Gramm, and Charles Stenholm, with Earle being allied with the liberals. Maybe someone more knowledgeable on Texas politics can weigh in on this.

5 thoughts on “Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty”

  1. the prosecutor also has a track record of indicting far more democrats than republicans. i think any comments regarding the prosecutor are pretty much useless. an idictment isn’t proof of guilt….you should have just stopped there.

  2. Your update further supports what i said though. if you want to criticize earle for going after people on weak charges, fine — but don’t say it’s because they’re republicans. say he’s petty and has gone after people he doesn’t like – I have no problem with that statement. but its clearly not a partisan issue along the “regular” partisan lines.

  3. It is not a partisan issue along regular partisan lines – at least not from a national perspective. I’ve pretty much grown up watching Texas politics down here in Houston, and it is a known fact Earle is a political hatchet man.
    John Fund had it exactly right when he said no Republicans used to be elected. This has been a solid Republican state since John Connolly switched to the Republicans in the 1970’s. From that point onward, the Democratic machine in Texas has been taken apart bit by bit, with South Texas being the remaining holdout.
    The last gasp of the statewide Dem machine was the Martin Frost redistricting of 1990, which kept a majority Dem state House and fed reps in place UNTIL the re-redistricting of the year before last. And Ronnie Earle has been a part of that machine for almost 30 years.
    Ronnie Earle has been a useful tool of the machine Dems all that time, and is now the only tool left in the shed. Jim Mattox was a firebrand who made few friends and many enemies among the powers that used to be. Result? An Earle indictment just when Mattox was threatening to run (and did end up running) against Ann Richards for governor. Richards defeated Mattox and ran against a weak Republican.
    Question, how many of these political indictments have ended in convictions for Earle? Answer: none. Does that tell you something?

  4. Sure, maybe. But that’s like saying Shea Hillenbrand (7 Ks in the doubleheader Tuesday) was “due”. I suspect you’ll die poor waiting.

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