Vail Daily column: A presumption of innocence
Remember the McMartins? Sure you do. Virginia McMartin, Ray Buckey and the rest of the hapless crew. Remember how they ran a preschool in Manhattan Beach in the early 1980s? Remember the relentless thunder of allegations against them? Remember how they were charged with dozens of counts of sexual abuse against the children in their care? Remember how they were tried and convicted in the court of public opinion and how they were fitted out for horns? Remember how the McMartin trial, in its day, turned out to be the longest and costliest criminal trial in U.S. history? But remember when it was all over, the government had spent seven years and more than $15 million investigating and prosecuting a case that led to no convictions?
It was a media darling, perhaps the first significant case – at least since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping – that stirred up such a frenzy. Certainly, it would not be the last.
The biggest problem with the McMartin case, however, was that it was constructed upon a stack of manipulations and lies and cold-blooded prosecutorial agendas. And in its wake were left ruined lives and hundreds of emotionally damaged children.
McMartin is, and deservedly should be, a stark and cautionary tale.
Now, let’s turn to Happy Valley. No, not this happy valley, but the one in Pennsylvania. Let’s spend a moment on the chronology. Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have sexually abused a number of boys over more than a decade. He is alleged to have done so by exercising influence and control over them by virtue of his office with Penn State and by and through the charity he founded.
Once the allegations were revealed, in swift order, Sandusky was arrested, legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno was fired (for doing what he was apparently legally obliged to do but for allegedly failing in his moral obligations), Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz were fired for similar alleged offenses, University President Graham Spanier was let go, and receivers football coach Mike McQueary is placed on administrative leave. Even football legend Franco Harris, who once played at Penn State, had his job as a spokesman for the Meadows Race Track and Casino “placed on hold” because he came to his former coach’s defense.
Sponsors have been dropping Penn State like a hot potato. Questions have begun to surface whether the 21st-ranked Nitanny Lions might be excluded from a bowl. This notwithstanding the undeniable fact that, even in the further reaches of imagination, this current crop of players had nothing whatsoever to do with the growing scandal.
Two things must be said. First, if Sandusky is convicted of being the pederast he is accused of being, I will be pleased to personally light the furnaces of Hell to herald his arrival (hopefully from a safe distance). If he is convicted of the abuse of children, the key to his dingy cell should be securely locked away and its whereabouts forgotten. Second, though, we must remember that this is America. Remember? The presumption of innocence is the spine, ganglion, and synapses of our criminal justice system. Despite the shrill and pounding denunciations of the media, until convicted, Jerry Sandusky is innocent. And until he is convicted, all he is is the current object of the 24-hour media’s obsessive attention.
Remember the several other trials of the century: O.J., Casey Anthony, the Michael Jackson pedophilia trials? Remember how each of them were pilloried, hung by their thumbs and marched before the firing squads by the rabid media? They were guilty one and all. Until the law said they were not.
Agree with the juries or not, the plain fact is that you were likely not in the various courtrooms. You were not privy to the evidence presented. What you were, however, subjected to was the subtle and selective attention of the media.
While I am an unabashed fan of an utterly free and unrestrained press (including its many hydra-headed permutations) as established by and under the First Amendment, its function is patently and purposely different than the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. While the press is free to say and think and opine whatever it darn well pleases, a person’s guilt must be “proved” (not speculated or conjectured) beyond a reasonable doubt.
Like you, I don’t like the news coming out of College Station. Neither, based on what the media has presented, do I think that Joe Pa and the others fulfilled their moral obligations whether or not Sandusky is ultimately found to have committed a crime. But jumping to the conclusion that Sandusky did commit a crime is premature. He first must, simply, have his day in court.
Like you, I have no access to the evidence being compiled against Mr. Sandusky and can only surmise what might have led to charges being filed. What I do know, however, is the law. And the law is unremitting, emphatic and jealous in protecting an accused from a rush to judgment. The law says that Jerry Sandusky is innocent. Period. Unless and until he is proven otherwise.
The presumption of innocence, as simple as it may sound, is a fundamental and essential bedrock of democracy. It is what generations of Americans have suffered, fought and died for. It is the bright and shining beacon that calls the huddled masses to our shores. It is the ideal that preserves us as a nation, apart, distinct, and frankly, better than most nations that have had their turn in history. And each of us has our own small role to play in preserving and protecting this most fundamental tenant of our separate and collective liberty. The presumption of innocence is, plainly, where the rubber of our freedoms hit the road.
Let’s not squander it in a rush to judgment. Sandusky will ultimately have his day. And if convicted, he will get his due. But until then, let’s put a check on the hysteria. If he is convicted, I will gladly throw the first stone. Until then, patience.
This is, after all, a nation of laws. This is, after all, America. Where you and I and Jerry Sandusky are innocent until proven in a court of law that we are otherwise.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners’ associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, email@example.com.