Invitation to a Beheading: DSK, Duke Lacrosse, and The Presumption of Innocence
When the story about IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn — accused of sexually assaulting and trying to rape a maid — broke over the weekend, a number of rivals within and outside of Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist Party urged the public to remember that he had not yet been proven guilty. For instance, Segolene Royal, a candidate for the Socialist Party primary, said, “This man must be respected, his family must be respected. I don’t want to make use for myself of what has happened. I think it would be indecent to make an episode out of this today and the rest of the week.” Dominique Paille, of the Centrist Radical Party, a group to the right of the Socialists, said, “I hope that everyone respects the presumption of innocence.” Similarly, Herve Morin, the president of the New Center Party and the former defense minister, said, “I’m not a Socialist, he is not my political friend, but despite that I call for the presumption of innocence. I will not take part in the witch hunt, with the dogs that are barking and those spreading rumors and saying ‘I told you so’.”
Such behavior, of course, stands in stark contrast to what would’ve happened if Strauss-Kahn was a contender for the presidential seat in The United States instead of France. His enemies outside of his party would’ve leapt at the opportunity to trash him; the people within his party would’ve kept quiet, waiting to see how things played out, to see what move or pronouncement would be best for their political careers. The man’s guilt or innocence aside, it was refreshing to see people defending his character, and attempting to quell the incipient media frenzy, perhaps encouraged by a 2000 French law aimed at the preserving the presumption of innocence. (There, it’s illegal to show images of a suspect in handcuffs; the idea is that it makes the person seem guilty. Cameras are also not allowed in the courtrooms.)
I have no particular affinity for Strauss-Kahn (and frankly, despite all that I’ve just said, I feel like I should note that things don’t look good for him right now). And there are things the French media could learn from America; namely, they might reconsider their practice of publishing the name of a woman who accuses a man of rape. (Here, news outlets typically refrain from doing that, out of respect for the victim’s privacy.) But I wish the U.S. media was a little more interested in civil rights and the spirit behind due process. While the guy may get a fair trial in a court of law, he’s already cooked in the court of public opinion here in America. And while the media could have played a useful watchdog role if the NYPD hadn’t taken the maid’s complaint as seriously as they did, I’m not sure they’re doing anything beneficial as it is. The consensual extramarital affairs he’s had in the past don’t make him a rapist, and they don’t even make him any more likely to be a rapist, no matter how many news articles try to imply that they do. And let us remember that with a few possible exceptions, papers and web sites aren’t reporting on Strauss-Kahn out of a sense of wanting to help the maid, or in the interest of righting wrongs; they’re doing it because they want the page views.
It may be that the punishment that Strauss-Kahn has already begun to endure is what he deserves. But it’s too bad the court of jesters that is the press decides the fate of so many people before the evidence is in. A lot of times, they get the call right. All those times they don’t, however, it’s a little like sending an innocent man to the guillotine — his good name is dead before anyone realizes they didn’t have the facts straight or that the implications they were making weren’t quite fair.
Remember those three Duke lacrosse players who were accused of raping a stripper back in 2006? Remember how many people rushed to judgement in that case, thinking, “Oh right, a bunch of entitled rich-kid jocks with testosterone problems — of course they did it!” I’m betting you do remember. What you might not recall, however, is that North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper eventually dropped all the charges against them, declaring them innocent and describing them as victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.” The District Attorney who was pushing the case against them was soon after disbarred. What I bet you also don’t know is that the young woman who accused them was charged with murder just last month, on April 18, 2011, five days after her boyfriend died from stabbing injuries.
The Duke case makes me wonder how fair it is to reveal the names of defendants before they’re proven guilty.
*Sometimes* the media helps ensure justice is done. But these days what’s more important to them, as a group, isn’t that so much as guaranteeing that we all have an invitation to the beheading.
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