July 27, 1996: a day that shocked and stirred an entire nation. While millions of families huddled around their television screens to watch the Summer Olympics, a bomb had been planted in Centennial Park. Locating the bomb mere moments before it detonated, security officer Richard Jewell was able to save hundreds of lives.
Jewell’s “hero” title quickly morphed into “villain” when he became a suspect in the FBI’s investigation. 24-hour media coverage of the investigation led to intense public scrutiny of Jewell and painted him as an enemy to the public.
Although the charges against Jewell were eventually dropped, his image was forever tainted in the eyes of the American public; Jewell was never proven guilty in court, but he never escaped the label of being a criminal suspect.
Due to the stigma surrounding the individuals involved with the criminal justice system in any capacity, news organizations should not make public the identities of suspects before their cases are formally adjudicated and given the “guilty” verdict.
As Americans, we grab onto the saying, “the public has a right to know” and hold tight until our knuckles turn white. In fact, there have been laws enacted with this title to ensure that the media are protected in their efforts to shed light on all aspects of the government’s inner workings.
However, there is another saying that we need to grab hold of even tighter: “Innocent until proven guilty.”
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental aspect of the criminal justice system and the due process of law that is guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution.
The Nolo Law Dictionary defines “presumption of innocence” as “one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”
If a news organization publicizes the name of an individual in the context of criminal charges, it opens up the accused to public scrutiny pre-trial—before they are proven guilty.
Since the individual is technically and lawfully innocent until the adjudication process is complete and a guilty verdict is returned, they should not be subject to public scrutiny.
Some turn up their noses at this idea, arguing that not publicizing the identities of criminal suspects would be dangerous to the public, offering the example of an accused pedophile. However, even an accused pedophile is just that—only accused. No matter how serious or heinous the criminal charge, every individual is legally innocent until their guilt is proven in court.
And what if the accused pedophile were to be acquitted? If their identity had been made public under the label of “accused pedophile,” they would likely never be viewed the same, regardless of their proven innocence.
If an individual is found innocent, they should remain innocent to the general population. Therefore, the identity of any individual accused of or arrested for a crime should be withheld from the public eye until they are found guilty.