The presumption of innocence – innocent until proven guilty – is a fundamental principle of American jurisprudence.
So when a prosecutor told members of a jury they could dispense with notions of the presumption of innocence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a first-degree murder conviction.
Keith Ford was charged with first-degree murder and three related firearms charges for the drive-by shooting death of Ruben Martinez in Vallejo, California.
Before Solano County Superior Court Judge Tim Kam, Ford’s lawyer argued contradictions of witnesses and doubt over the identity of the shooter meant that the presumption of innocence had not been satisfied.
That’s when the prosecutor decided to dispense the fundamental legal principle.
“This idea of this presumption of innocence is over,” the prosecutor said. “Mr. Ford had a fair trial. We were here for three weeks where … he gets to cross-examine witnesses; also an opportunity to present evidence information through his lawyer. He had a fair trial. This system is not perfect, but he had a fair opportunity and a fair trial. He’s not presumed innocent anymore.”
The defense counsel presented evidence that would cast doubt on the defendant’s guilt. At the time of the shooting there was a “motorcycle party down the street.” Witnesses were never asked to identify Ford’s vehicle, no one reviewed the contents of stolen cell phones recovered from Ford’s car, no gun or shell casings were found, and the only DNA found at the scene belonged to Martinez.
When the prosecutor contended that there was no more presumption of innocence, the defense lawyer objected, but the judge overruled the objection.
Ford appealed through the state court system then brought his case to federal court.
“We hold that the prosecutor’s statements violated due process,” the appeals court ruling said. “Improper prosecutorial statements violate due process if they ‘so infect’ the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.”
“In stating that the presumption of innocence was now ‘over,’ the prosecutor misstated federal law,” the ruling said. “The presumption of innocence is ‘the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary’; the presumption of innocence is ‘vital and fundamental,'”‘ the court wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that criminal defendants lose their presumption of innocence “only after they have been convicted,” the 9th Circuit ruled.
The ruling said the state could retry the case if prosecutors “within a reasonable time not to exceed 180 days.”
Longtime liberal law professor
“This reversal could have been avoided if the trial judge had simply upheld the defense objection and issued an instruction to the jury. Instead, he allowed this statement to go uncontested in a case where the jury would clearly struggle with the evidence for three days of deliberation. The result was a denial of justice not only for the defendant but the family of the victim,” he said.
Kam isn’t the only one who has lost track of that fundamental principle.
In an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former CIA Director John Brennan said “people are innocent, you know, until alleged to be involved in some kind of criminal activity.”
With sincere apologies in advance to all US liberals who are offended by criticisms of former CIA chiefs, @JohnBrennan‘s understanding of the presumption of innocence is completely warped, but in the most unsurprising way imaginable: pic.twitter.com/IsE8ulSJMo
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 6, 2019
Zerohedge explained: “The presumption of innocence, as a foundation of the U.S. judicial system, has seemingly been under attack since November 8th 2016. An allegation is made, media runs with the narrative, the seed of possibility of guilt is implanted in the minds of zombie Americans, and the accused is maligned forever – no court required. Simple. And now, none other than former CIA Director John Brennan clarifies exactly how the deep state sees ‘due process.'”
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