Parr What it means to be a nation of laws

November 11, 2017

I remember watching on television in the summer of 2011 the trial of Casey Anthony, accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter.

The trial’s ending coincided with the last family vacation before I began college, and I recall sitting in the living room of the condo we were renting as the two sides made closing arguments. I turned to my dad, an attorney, and asked his thoughts on the outcome. Almost immediately, he responded, “There’s no way the jury will find she did it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

At the time, that answer struck me as odd, because, if you had asked anybody on the street who was remotely following the case, or listened to the news talk shows, you would have thought Anthony was already on death row.

That same mind-set is widely applicable today, with perhaps the most prescient example being the recent reports of celebrity sexual assault.

Private individuals and entities are basically free to think whatever they want and, to a lesser degree, act on those beliefs. If sponsors, producers, consumers, (maybe) employers and others associated with the accused want to sever ties based on such allegations, there is no constitutional provision that requires they base their decision on anything more than a gut reaction of, “He’s sick.”

And make no mistake: If those accused of sexual assault, or any other illegal act, are found to have committed such atrocities, they should be met with justice—criminal and civil—that is swift and fierce. But there is a reason trials exist; trials have rules, such as what kind of evidence can be admitted and how witnesses are permitted to testify. In the criminal context, the Constitution guarantees defendants certain protections, such as confronting witnesses against them, public trials, right against self-incrimination and double jeopardy, and the state’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Incorporating these safeguards, courts determine the facts and apply the law to those facts.

One of my favorite law-related historical stories involves John Adams and his defense of eight British soldiers involved with the Boston Massacre. Six were acquitted, and two were convicted of manslaughter. This was in 1770, as tensions were building leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the colonists’ break from England.

One can readily imagine what some of Adams’ friends and acquaintances were no doubt telling him as he defended those British soldiers. “John, what are you doing?! Didn’t you read what they did to our fellow Patriots? How can you defend them? This will destroy any chance you have of ever holding elected office!”

For some, and perhaps a few more given the right circumstances, there is a large chasm between being innocent and being found not guilty. The most obvious example would be a situation where there was no question that a defendant committed a heinous crime—and yet was acquitted because of what some deride as a “legal technicality.”

That brings to mind one of the quintessential quotes regarding the American system of government, also, incidentally, provided by Adams: “We are a nation of laws, not of men.”

We could, I suppose, dispense with these constitutional protections and simply hold a people’s court by which an individual is found guilty or liable based solely on how a group feels on any given day or predicated on accusations alone. I’m not a lawyer yet, but I think that’s called mob justice.

People are still free to make up their minds and live out those conclusions on most subjects, but perhaps it would do us all some good to wait for the facts before making those determinations.•


Parr is a student at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and is treasurer of the Indiana Young Republicans.Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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