Probable Cause and the Presumption of Innocence: How a Criminal Defendant's Right to Fair Trial Relies on Your Kid's Education in Fine Arts

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Nunn, Henry
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“[W]hen those charges are brought, these people are guilty.” One would be forgiven for thinking that was a line delivered by a rusty sheriff in an old Western movie. He is easy to imagine: cowboy boots kicked up on a desk, polishing his six-shooter with an oil-stained handkerchief, spitting tobacco juice at a jailcell full of highwaymen and horse thieves. But sadly, that was a quote from Lori Lightfoot, the former mayor of Chicago, Illinois—a city with the third highest population in the United States, a city with a history of wrongful convictions caused by police misconduct. Mayor Lightfoot immediately backtracked by saying, “[o]f course they’re entitled to a presumption of innocence. Of course they’re entitled to their day in court. But residents in our community are also entitled to safety from dangerous people.” Taken in context, Mayor Lightfoot’s comments represented her views on pretrial release for individuals charged with violent crimes. She believed anyone charged with a violent crime should be held in state custody without opportunity for pretrial release because such a person posed an intolerable hazard to the community. Her position might have sounded preposterous to anyone with an elementary knowledge of our criminal justice system. And perhaps it was enough to erode her credibility as a government official who swore to serve the same citizens she was so ready to condemn as criminals before trial. But was her visceral reaction to violent crime incomprehensible? Of course not. It is only natural to seek immediate justice in response to violent crime. Furthermore, the U.S. criminal justice system is inherently prejudicial to the accused. Simply observing a criminal defendant in custody predisposes the public to inferences of guilt. Although pretrial release is hotly debated at the moment, it is not the subject of this Note. Rather, this Note focuses on two seemingly irreconcilable principles of our criminal justice system that Mayor Lightfoot’s comments heavy-handedly bring to the attention of the public: the standard of probable cause and the presumption of innocence.
Creighton University School of Law
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