Why I Don’t Subscribe to “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”

The past few months have been a weird time, with the media finally having to focus on some of the issues that progressives have been talking about for a long time: violence against women; victim-blaming; police-brutality and the racist deaths of young black men at the hands of (white) cops; collusion with predators; collusion with oppressors. And you, like me, are probably inundated with stories and conversations and facebook posts (and facebook arguments) taking every angle on the issue. And no matter which angle, you are also hearing this bleated at you: “Innocent until proven guilty!! Innocent until proven guilty!” like it’s an ace in the hole. Can’t argue with that, can you? So we better just stop talking about it.

Have you ever noticed that those shouting “Innocent until proven guilty[IUPB]” use it as a way to shut down conversation? Have you ever noticed that those shouting IUPB use it to shut down conversation that is critical of the status quo? Critical of the systems that allow, enable, and collude with oppressors and abusers and victimizers?

Have you ever noticed that IUPB is used to shut down conversations that implicate not just the wrongdoer but those around him and those around you that engage in similar behaviour?

Have you ever noticed that eschewing the IUPB framework is treated like it’s worse than the offense itself? Much like how calling someone racist has become worse (in the minds of many white people) than actually being racist, talking about Jian Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby or Darren Wilson without throwing in “allegedly” and “of course we can’t really know what happened” and “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY” is treated like more of a social faux pas than actually being a sexual predator or murderer.

There are four reasons I don’t subscribe to the IUPB framework:

1. I’m not a criminal court. They have a duty to presume innocence unless and until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t. I am free to make up my mind based on the publicly available information as well as historical context. For example, publicly available information tells me 15+ women have accused Bill Cosby of raping them, while historical context tells me that false rape allegations are made very (very, very) rarely, and that victims who come out publicly are pilloried, shamed, and blamed (so why on earth would someone come out with a rape accusation for funsies? And against a hugely rich and powerful man to boot?). In fact, I’d say taking Cosby’s side in this instance is not only ethically troublesome, but logically troublesome.

2. My refusing to grant innocence until guilt is proven of some powerful dude thousands of miles away doesn’t impact them at all. But it does impact the survivors in my life. My saying “I believe the accusers” tells survivors I am a safe person to talk to, that I will believe them too, that I understand the pressures and systems in place to prevent victims coming forward.

3. The IUPB framework is applied selectively. (Alleged) rapists are granted it, while their victims are presumed to be lying until proven innocent (in the extraordinarily rare case that sexual assault is actually convicted). Darren Wilson is presumed to be innocent while Michael Brown is presumed to have been guilty of and deserving of a death sentence for…? Indeed, Darren Wilson has been granted a permanent presumption of innocence through incredibly corrupt grand jury proceedings. The IUPB framework is applied in ways that maintain the power structures of the world that privilege men, whiteness, and wealth at the expense of people of colour, women, and the poor.

4. The criminal justice system is set up by–and for–those in power. Grand juries rarely indict police officers and the courts are simply not set up to attend to the realities of most sexualized violence. So if you are a vulnerable person (a woman, a person of colour, any number of intersecting identities), relying on the court to tell you who to stay away from, who to keep your eye on, who to warn your loved ones away from, you’re trusting a rigged system to keep you safe. And if you take a failure to indict or a failure to convict as proof of innocence, especially in situations where the accused has power and the victim has none, especially in cases where we have centuries of precedent showing that perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, you’re trusting a rigged system to keep you safe. And if you think the only way you can trust a victim is after a rigged system has found their abuser guilty, you’re collaborating with a rigged system.

I’m not saying do away with the legal presumption of innocence, I’m saying that buying into the (somehow) pervasive idea that you and I have the same responsibility, that believing victims is somehow stripping accused abusers of their right to a fair trial, is dangerous, harmful, and ethically suspect.

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6 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Subscribe to “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”

  1. We have the presumption of innocence to protect against the literal ability of the state to take a persons life. The system is based on the idea that it is better that 9 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man goes to the gallows. Its not perfect but its still the most just system humanity has come up with. You are free to believe whatever you want at the accusation stage but to suggest that the innocent until proven guilty doctrine is flawed is far more dangerous than anything you posit.

    1. I didn’t actually take issue with the legal presumption of innocence. Indeed, I think it’s the best option we’ve got.

      As you’ll note, however, I am not a criminal court, and I’m assuming you aren’t either. Thus, we need not be held to the same standard.

      1. Like I said youre free to have your own opinion. For me the Cosby thing is beyond bizarre, and in my opinion you arent a criminal unless you’ve been convicted of a crime.

  2. Excellent post! While its a great LEGAL standard, it’s a crappy one to apply in life, unless you are willing to say all victims are liars until proven otherwise. Life is messy and complicated. No simple rule is going to sort out ethical behavior for you.

    Ever notice that the same people who do this also hold it against rape victims if they wait to report or don’t report?

  3. Yes x1000! Thank you for putting this together so clearly.
    I don’t think I have ever posted about a sexual assault allegation on Facebook — ie, very very far from anywhere that has legally binding force — without someone shaking IUPG in my face. Until (and unless) the same people get equally outraged by my arguments against, say, equally unindicted Wall Street moguls, I think it’s clear their opposition has precious little to do with any legal principles.
    Your point #2: quite right. I know –and am heard by — far more survivors than Bill Cosbys.

  4. ” The IUPB framework is applied selectively. (Alleged) rapists are granted it, while their victims are presumed to be lying until proven innocent (in the extraordinarily rare case that sexual assault is actually convicted). Darren Wilson is presumed to be innocent while Michael Brown is presumed to have been guilty of and deserving of a death sentence for…? Indeed, Darren Wilson has been granted a permanent presumption of innocence through incredibly corrupt grand jury proceedings. The IUPB framework is applied in ways that maintain the power structures of the world that privilege men, whiteness, and wealth at the expense of people of colour, women, and the poor.”

    I think this part is key. Thank you for your post. Nothing to add, just praise.

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