Social media has uncovered the views of millions of people ranging from politics to baking recipes to the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants.
I have been surprised by how many people have opinions about guilt/innocence minutes after an initial news report is published. It’s not only surprising, but very troubling for several reasons. Here are two:
1. PREJUDGMENT – A recent example of this is the acquittal of the police officer in St. Louis, Missouri.
During the trial, thousands of people across the nation expressed their judgment before the trial was over, without seeing a single piece of evidence, and completely relying on reports from friends and media.
After the officer was acquitted by the judge, protests began in the city. The protests, filmed by numerous sources, lead to alleged acts of vandalism, destruction of property, and other alleged criminal acts. A large police force was deployed to protect people and property. Eighty people were arrested.
Yet, very few, if any of the protesters, saw the evidence at trial.
Now, there are many Americans who are concerned and angry about the statistics regarding police shootings of black males across the country during police/citizen encounters. I respect the views on all sides of this issue. However, each case should be investigated and scrutinized by prosecutors on an individual basis. A person’s liberty should never be placed in jeopardy by statistics, political pressure, results of prior cases, or fear of community outburst.
A few days ago, I could not push back the urge to post this story on Facebook. I simply said that the protests and videotaped behavior were unacceptable. I should have added that these actions further divide our country and send the message that when verdicts are rendered that may be unpopular with several people, the verdict will be met with protests and possibly violence.
The responses were across the board. But, one theme came across consistently; because of other similar allegations and trials across the country in recent years, this defendant was guilty.
When I challenged this notion by saying that because I had not seen any of the evidence, I could not make an informed opinion, one person responded, (paraphrasing) the Constitution may protect him in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion.
Based on the responses to this post, I gathered that many people consider it acceptable to prejudge a defendant based on the person’s political ideology, worldview, attitudes toward people based on race, and perception of police officers and other workers as a group. Basically, the court of public opinion operates on feelings; not proven facts in a specific case.
2. JURY CONTAMINATION – Unfortunately, the court of public opinion now interferes with real courts. Three or four years ago, I was trying a criminal case in a local county. Judges always instruct the jury not to research any aspects of the case. Jurors are supposed to render verdicts based on the evidence presented in court.
In the middle of trial, one juror admitted to doing some self-investigating of my client. He found an unverified criminal history of my client online along with other things; good and bad. As you may guess, the judge was not happy. The judge removed him from the trial. Afterwards, I wondered how many other jurors did their own research.
Today, I wonder how many verdicts across this nation are decided upon, at least in part, the court of public opinion or unverified information from the internet? How many verdicts are rendered based on the fear jurors have of the consequences of an unpopular verdict? How many guilty defendants have been acquitted due to this? How many innocent defendants have been found guilty?
What if your son or daughter was on trial in superior court and in the court of public opinion? What if he or she was a police officer, school teacher, or protester in a high-profile case with political, ideology, and prejudgment swirling throughout the internet? What if your child had an enemy spreading false information on the internet? What if media reports were inaccurate?
Would you feel confident that he or she would receive a fair trial?
While the court of public opinion makes for interesting discussion, it has reached the point where it is severely damaging our criminal and civil justice systems.