Every crime has elements that must be met in order for the accused to be convicted. First degree murder, for instance, is the intentional killing of a human being with premeditation, and burglary is the breaking and entering of a place with the intent to steal.
If all the elements of a crime can’t be proven, the accused is innocent of that crime. It doesn’t always work out the way it should, but proving the elements of a crime is where it begins.
A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, so an accused person has only allegedly committed a crime until such time as convicted. Ethical journalists always say “allegedly” or add some other caveat to indicate there has been no conviction.
The general public doesn’t need a trial and isn’t bound by journalistic ethics. A good rumor is enough to touch off a lynching in the comments section of a newspaper or in what we call the blogosphere.
Most people have always been up for a good public lynching; it’s just easier now.
Take the case of Rod R. Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois. He was arrested and charged with federal crimes involving mail fraud and soliciting and accepting bribes -- generally reported under the heading of “corruption.”
As of this writing, at least 51 Democrats in the United States Senate and President-elect Obama have made the assumption that Blagojevich is guilty and should resign. At least two of the 51 -- Obama and Harry Reed the Senate Majority Leader -- are lawyers and should know better.
If those 51 Democrats and most of the people of the United States were depending on the shame factor to end the situation quickly, they were wrong. Either Blagojevich has no shame or he really doesn’t think he is guilty. In fact he proceeded to appoint a new U.S. Senator, which was his legal prerogative.
Now there really is a mess. Roland Burris, the man appointed by Blagojevich says he will take his seat -- given him by a legal appointment -- in the Senate, and 51 Democrats find themselves in opposition to the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, and who, by all reports, is a good man.
Gee whiz, who would have ever thunk there could have been so much trouble caused by ignoring the presumption of innocence in the United states of America?
For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth much), I think Blagojevich is probably guilty as sin, but I wouldn’t say it in print. Jackleg journalist that I am, the editors with whom I’ve worked for nearly 20 years, taught me to be very clear that a crime is only alleged and not proven until there has been a trial and a conviction.