Presumption Of Guilt and Rush To Judgment

Here we go again with Canada’s favoured corruption of the chorus we piously sing in praise of truth and justice in our legal system. It should resound with the oft repeated phrase that in our enlightened society no man or woman is deemed guilty of an offence under law until the charges against them are proved beyond a shadow of doubt in a court of law.

It should so sound, but not longer does.

We still boast the “presumption of innocence” is one of the great foundation stones in our democratic way of life, but no longer believe. . We chant instead the vicious, destructive, doctrine of “presumption of guilt”

The latest example flashed into headlines from Halifax just a few days ago when four navy men were arrested and charged with various assault charges – including the most vicious, “sexually assaulting a woman.”

The four men were quickly and repeatedly identified as members of the Royal Navy not the Royal Canadian Navy. Print stories were careful to mention in all stories that the offences listed were “alleged”, a wonderful protective word which allows lots of scope for salacious reporting without fear of law suits.

On television CHEK News proudly show the accused being marched into court, hand-cuffed and foot-shackled. The pictures do not catch even a whisper of what should be a brain alert cautionary warning of the “presumption of innocence.” I watch the screen and see only four young men trying to hide their faces, chains dangling from their wrists; the camera makes sure I see the chains around their ankles. Visually, to me and I’m sure to many others, the “presumption of guilt” is clear – and worrying.

There may well be a true horror story of violence and brutality here. If there is justice and society by rule of law will demand payment.

But I am reminded that three years ago John Furlong, a highly respected and internationally admired gentleman living in Vancouver, was accused of sexual and physical abuse of students in his care decades earlier. The allegations were reported, the details lurid. And one by one the charges were dropped, some of the accusers never having been in schools where Furlong taught.

Although free of all charges Furlong will always carry the scars, especially the ones inflicted by the society he had served so well, a society all too eager to rush to judgment to presume guilt while ignoring any possibility of innocence.

Last year two Toronto doctors faced trial on charges of gang sexual assaults and drugging. The names of the accusers and female witnesses were protected by court order. The names of the doctors were not

Both men were acquitted, but not before the presumption of guilt had done its ever-lasting harm.

I could go on with reminders of the BC school teacher still trying to repair a reputation wrecked by shocking accusations of sadism, later admitted to being figments of the imagination of a student. He can never completely repair the damage.

I could go for larger pictures from universities, in Canada and the USA, where false accusations have seen careers and faculties ruined by charges laid and later withdrawn too late to halt the presumption of guilt tidal wave. Best known on that sordid list of presumptive news reporting is the Rolling Stone’s major story on the gang rape of a female student.

Early in April Rolling Stone published a long apology for printing a sensational story that had little or no foundation in fact. And the highly regarded Columbia School of Journalism published a detailed report on how the lies came to be presented as fact.

Now back to those four Royal Navy tars. Just remember they are “alleged” to have committed crimes but are, and should be, must be, presumed innocent of until proven otherwise. And TV should  leave the pictures of chained hands and feet until the day, if found guilty, their punishment begins.


  1. Of course it’s impossible to judge these sailors at this stage of proceedings; moreover it’s not our place to. Judgment must come from a court of law and until that happens a presumption of innocence must prevail.

    But as for the false accusations you’ve cited I believe the climate of political correctness is partly responsible. When I began reporting more than 50 years ago victims’ rape complaints elicited more skepticism from the police.

    Another point that deserves attention is the dearth of prosecutions for making false allegations.

  2. I agree completely. The “yellow press” and the tabloids have extended their tentacles into electronic media in the never ending search for circulation and advertising dollars with little regard for truth or the law. I believe, because of the sense that our justice system is wishy-washy many of us believe that justice is no longer seen to be done. As a result we have become a vigilante society (but politically correct) willing to accept “news” biased by the profit motive. And you may find it hard to believe; I’m a conservative.

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