Presumption of Innocence, Where Did It Go?

May 16, 2008 by David S. Seltzer

Over the weekend, I was in my home town of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, when an incident broke out. A little background first about Montreal. Montreal is a beautiful European city, but it is very tight-knit, in that in the surrounding neighborhoods and communities, everyone knows what’s going on.

A teacher at one of the local private schools in Westmount, a suburb of Montreal, was arrested in Virginia for allegedly soliciting an undercover police officer over the internet. As I was in Montreal over the weekend, I attempted to find out more. I went over to the high school, where I was essentially escorted out of the school for inquiring about the subject. This wasn’t the end of it. No one in the city seemed to want to help this individual. Now, I am not insensitive to the underlying allegations; however, what bothers me is that as a society, this man has already been tried and sentenced. What happened to the presumption of innocence today? The same people who threw me out of the school are the same ones who teach our children about our justice system and society.

I understand that the crime he is alleged to have committed is appalling to our society; but does no one believe in the system of justice that we have followed for centuries? I have seen people charged with murder get more assistance than I have this individual. Forget rights, the allegation alone has created a situation whereby he is guaranteed NOT to get a fair trial.

I recall when I was a prosecutor trying a case involving child pornography. I had similar thoughts; who can really be fair and impartial? I really truly believed that it was possible for someone to sit as a juror and render a fair verdict. Looking back on it, when faced with images of child pornography and evidence of where it came from, was there any way a conviction wasn’t coming? Now the defense in that case did a fabulous job representing the client, but did it matter? Was the client really tried by a “jury of his peers?” Were the pictures alone the basis of the conviction, or did the jury actually listen to the evidence?

Is there still a presumption of innocence in our society when online crimes involving children are ALLEGED. Does the State/Government still have the “burden of proof,” or has it really shifted to the defense (contrary to our laws) to prove his innocence?

After what I experienced in Montreal over the weekend, I know I still believe in this country’s justice system, I’m just not sure most of its citizens do.