Fewer maxims have greater resonance in United States common law jurisprudence than the presumption of innocence. Fused at the interpretative hip with reasonable doubt, it is more than an assumption and remains sacrosanct in American legal doctrine.
Established in the US justice system via a Supreme Court ruling Coffin v US 156 U.S. 432 (1895), the presumption of innocence pervades criminal justice systems across the globe and can even be found in countries with disparate legal regimes. Further SCOTUS decisions reinforced the maxim including Estelle v Williams (1976), Taylor v Kentucky (1978) and Kentucky v Wharton (1979).
The United Nations incorporated the principle in its Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 under article 11, section 1 and was integrated into the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (US article 14, section 2) in 1966.
In the case of Brendan Dassey, has the meaning been eviscerated? The fallibility is evident in how jurors interpret this directive, as empirical research suggests that jurors do not start their consideration of criminal cases with a probability of guilt that approaches zero. Hurl a rather portly Special Prosecutor proclaiming “reasonable doubts are for innocent people only” into the heady democratic process and Brendan’s rights to due process of law under the 5th and 14th Amendments are obliterated.
The presumption of innocence serves two separate functions:
Allocates the burden of proof to the prosecution. If the prosecution is unable to produce admissible evidence that establishes the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then the jury should find the defendant not guilty.
It is mandated that jurors may only use the evidence produced at trial to formulate their own opinion with respect to the defendant’s guilt. The fact the defendant is on trial does not count as such evidence.
(Mis)Trial by Media
From the prejudicial pre-trial press conference to trying Brendan in an adult court, the State of Wisconsin chipped away at the presumption of innocence with each misstep they took in wrongfully convicting a vulnerable and intellectually challenged 16-year-old. Special Prosecutor Kratz was a flagship of prosecutorial misconduct, salivating as he conducted an inflammatory press conference that placed the shackles at Brendan’s ankles with each word he (spl)uttered.
The greater legal fraternity proffered that Kratz had crossed the line of ethical conduct with contradictory statements that saw the prosecutor teeter from reputable into disrepute as he courted the press with "Brendan accompanies his sweaty, 43-year-old uncle down the hallway to Steven Avery's bedroom” to “I made no attempt to poison the jury pool.” Seemingly imparting axioms with nonchalance, Kratz flagrantly violated the Wisconsin Rule of Professional Conduct 3.6 (2) (a) with but a snide finger swipe of his Inspector Clouseauish moustache.
The Presumption of Innocence
Brendan’s presumption of innocence was under attack with each press conference or statement given to the speculative media waiting for the day’s click-bait. Cast another villain, albeit feline like in grin into the frenetic circus, Len Kachinsky was appointed counsel on March 7th, 2006. Not having met with his client until March 10th, Kachinsky would join Kratz in massacring Brendan’s right to ‘equal protection under the law’ with an opening statement (not having met or read the criminal complaint) “We have a 16 year old who while morally and legally responsible…” (Kachinsky doesn’t get a full quote on this website) Kachinsky would spend ten hours talking to local reporters, Court TV and Dateline NBC in the first three weeks of his ‘representation’ and only one hour with a frightened, fearful 16 year-old Brendan. Shame on him.
Unmaking a Murderer
Brendan’s false and coerced confession will sadly take its place in the annals of juvenile false confessions and the lack of DNA or forensic evidence will continue to profile the lack of corroborating evidence in an appalling tale spun from the tongues of two fathers. There was no presumption of innocence for Brendan, however, it is evident that the sacred principle holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, that a prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, each essential element of the crime charged, was long forgotten in the dust of Kratz’s pervasive and highly prejudicial press conference.
Fortunately Making a Murderer took the presumption of innocence maxim seriously and aligned itself with the defendants view point and not the prosecution. This has enabled all to see that crime scene evidence was not corroborated by Kratz’s press conference and most certainly not brought to fruition in front of the jury. Brendan Dassey proffers a heartbreaking portrait of a justice system devoid of justice – particularly for the innocent, young and vulnerable. Free Brendan Dassey.