Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Adrian Peterson situation and the problem with prejudging

So, as basically everyone has heard, Vikings football player Adrian Peterson has been indicted by a Texas grand jury on child abuse charges. Initially, he was deactivated from the team & prevented from playing in one game this past Sunday; the team owners then reactivated him to play on Mondaywhile the criminal case worked its way through the court system. The Radisson pulled its sponsorship of the entire Vikings team as a result of the indictment. Nike & Wheaties also severed ties with Peterson. On Tuesday, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton weighed in on the situation, calling Peterson's alleged actions "a public embarrassment" & while providing lip service to the idea of innocent until proven guilty, said that the Vikings should have continued Peterson's suspension until the court case was finished. Senator Al Franken also called for Peterson's suspension to be reinstated. Finally, on Wednesday, the Vikings reversed course under the media & political pressure & placed Peterson on the exempt list, meaning he must stay away from the team.

This is all the result of an accusation. Not a conviction. Not a verdict of guilty or an admission of committing a crime. An accusation.

Of course, the Vikings & the media & the corporate sponsors don't owe Peterson anything. They aren't required or expected to give him due process or presume innocence until guilt is proven. (I do find the politicians who are failing to afford him those things troubling because they are supposed to uphold the Constitution & due process & innocent until proven guilty are pretty fundamental pieces of Constitutional law.)

The problem is that when people are so publicly vilified before a conviction, it becomes easier & easier for the general public to assume everyone who is accused is guilty & deserving of punishment before guilt is actually proven. And there are people who end up having their entire lives ruined because of this attitude, even if they are eventually found not guilty or the charges are dismissed. Because they were unlucky enough to be accused, even if they did nothing wrong.

One of the most pubic examples of this phenomenon is the tragic story of former Mankato State coach Todd Hoffner, whose entire life & successful career were upended because of charges of producing child pornography. He was immediately booted from him position at the college, before he even knew that he was being investigated or charged. The charges stemmed from two cell phone videos of his young children dancing, laughing, & horsing around with each other while naked. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the charges against him, saying they should never have been filed. The state's continuing investigation of Hoffner revealed no child pornography & that his children were happy, normal, & well-adjusted. But by the time the charges were dismissed, the damage to Hoffner's career, reputation, family, & life had already been done.

The news media & the university didn't owe him due process, as that concept is only required of the government. But had they exercised some restraint, had he been permitted to maintain his position with the college until the case was resolved in court, perhaps Hoffner's life & career wouldn't have been destroyed by mere allegations.

The fact that so often people accused of crimes are vilified & punished by the media & the public & other institutions before ever being convicted damages the concept of innocent until proven guilty for everyone. Society learns that an accusation alone is sufficient to assume you're guilty, regardless of the actual outcome. And guess who happens to be on juries? Members of society. The same ones who are routinely exposed to the idea that it's acceptable to punish someone & assume guilt based solely on an accusation.

The more acceptable it becomes to assume guilt before conviction, to not only impose punishment before a person is found guilty but to actively oppose when someone is not punished before any conviction, the easier it becomes to bring that viewpoint into a courtroom. The easier is becomes to assume the defendant sitting there at trial is guilty simply because his or her name happens to be on the complaint, regardless of the evidence. The easier it is for jurors to think that the person accused is deserving of some punishment based solely on the fact that he or she has been accused and that the jury should find the defendant guilty to ensure punishment is received. 

Due process in the media or from business, etc. isn't required.  But, it would certainly be beneficial for society to slow its collective roll and not immediately lambaste someone who has been charged or accused until the court case has worked its way through the system and the person's guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Instead of an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to someone being accused, how about we as a society take a breather for a few and wait to see what happens.  Because sometimes, even when the case resolves in your favor and you are eventually vindicated as not being guilty of whatever they said you did, it's way too little, way too late.  


  1. AP already went through a grand jury; doesn't that mean somebody already reviewed the evidence and has shown that the claim isn't frivolous?

    1. Good question w/ a less than clear answer. Yes and no. A grand jury stands in place of the prosecution, determining whether there's enough evidence to charge a person and what charge is appropriate. During grand jury proceedings (which are secret), the defense attorney is not allowed to be there and the evidence is not subject to cross-examination or other review and the evidence may or may not be admissible at trial. Basically, the prosecution says "Here's the evidence we have and here are the charges we'd recommend you as the grand jury charge the defendant with." There is no review of the credibility of the people who testify in a grand jury proceeding, as that would typically be done by a defense attorney on cross-examination, and any problems with the evidence that might be exposed during a trial are unlikely to make it into the proceedings.

      Essentially, a grand jury just reviews the prosecution's best evidence, without any scrutiny provided to that evidence by a thorough trial process, and determines if there is probable cause for certain charges. And there's a well-known saying in the criminal justice world by a judge that "a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich, if that's what you want." It's rare that a grand jury rejects an indictment. It's not more proof than any other type of charging document.

      In sum, even if the grand jury has indicted someone so that the accusation isn't frivolous, that doesn't mean it's been proven.