Society and Culture
The presumption of innocence prior to a definitive adjudication of guilt is fundamental to our Constitutional system. In the criminal context, a citizen is innocent until proven guilty. That’s what you learn on day one in your criminal law course. The government must prove every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt — or you get to go free. But how does this presumption affect a celebrity? How does it differ depending on the crime someone has been charged with. What about the frequency of the allegations? I had a chance to examine my faith in the presumption of innocence when the allegations surrounding recording artist R. Kelly were brought back into the public consciousness. The nature of allegations against the prolific R&B singer gave me pause, and forced me to answer some tough questions about the nature of the benefit of the doubt everyone should be given in criminal matters.
Conceptually, I can wrap my head around a presumption of innocence. It puts the onus on the government to make its case against you. Despite what you’ve been accused of, at least philosophically, a defendant need not put on a case if the government has not shouldered its substantial burden. But in the minds of the lay person, the person who hasn’t read legal opinions by Learned Hand, or Judge Easterbrook, or — God Forbid — Blackstone, all it takes is an accusation of wrongdoing, for a person to be condemned. Despite having gone to law school and believing fundamentally in the presumption of innocence, many times my own natural inclinations are to feel that when someone is accused of especially heinous crimes, “they must have done something.”
That sentiment was never more true than when, some weeks ago, the allegations leveled against recording artist R. Kelly came back to the fore. The Village Voice chronicled the ongoing crusade of journalist Jim DeRogatist to, at the very least, convey the message that there were still more stories — troubling, sickening stories — to be told about the artist R. Kelly and his involvement with under-aged women. What many people relegated to the “rumors from the nineties” category of their pop-culture memory, DeRogatis classifies as heinous, ongoing, and too terrible to not have some basis in truth.
The allegations against Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, were first broken by DeRogatis when he received an anonymous fax that the artist was being investigated over the course of two years by the sex crimes unit of the Chicago police department. What DeRogatis counts as most remarkable, however, is how those allegations are still classified in the minds of many as “rumors” despite the fact that they were made in filed court documents. Granted, where there is smoke, there is not always fire. A healthy amount of skepticism is natural when it comes to allegations that have not been substantiated in court. What was shocking to me, and I think many, however, was the sheer number of allegations, nudging the idea of Kelly victimizing young women from the plausible, to the probable.
The revelations in the article catch the reader off guard. Not a single allegation, but dozens of lawsuits filed over the years. What DeRogatis explains are multiple sex tapes, only one of which was the basis for the indictment that most remember being leveled against the singer. Without rehashing most of what the Village Voice interview described, the most important concept here is how the masses handle these allegations. The narrative circles back to the presumption of innocence that is the baseline of our criminal system. What do we do in the face of multiple suits alleging heinous acts from the adult Kelly, with women as young as 14 and 15?
The lawyer in me yells, “prove it beyond a reasonable doubt!” The lay person in me thinks, “there is an awful lot of smoke here.” How can I reconcile these perspectives?
The better answer of these choices is to stand by the presumption of innocence. To hew close to the notion that no matter how heinous the charge, it must be proven in open court. The trial is supposed to be the fundamental engine of truth. A search for justice — whatever that means. But that has not been the response since the Village Voice article hit the Internet. In a move that may be in recognition of the allegations resurfacing, Lady Gaga, who had a hit single with R. Kelly with the song “Do What U Want,” released another version of the song with artist Christina Aguilera. Many on the Internet and in the Twitterverse backed off their admiration of the artist in the wake of the Village Voice piece. Where do I stand? Well, I am somewhere in the middle.
There are so many instances when I tell people that I want to be a criminal defense attorney that they say, “So you want to defend rapists and murderers?” If I am annoyed, my response is a flat “yes.” If I am willing to indulge the person, I explain to them that anyone, be he someone arrested for drunk driving, speeding, or serial murder, comes before the court in the exact same position: presumed innocent. He or she is merely a “person accused of _______.” Nothing more, nothing less. R. Kelly can rightfully say the only charge that ever made it to trial — one for child pornography — resulted in an acquittal in 2008. What remains however, are allegations by dozens of very young Black women in the early 2000s of terrible acts by the artist and one reporter’s crusade — not to burn the artist at the stake — but merely to show the public what he himself has seen over the years: doing the research, knocking on doors, and speaking to crying victims.
The presumptions we all have of persons accused of sexual crimes in particular make those cases some of the most volatile. Hell, Law & Order: SVU is, I think, in its 7,000th season and going strong with Android Ice T because of the nature of sex crimes and the pure human emotion involved.
I wonder what it is that makes people take sides so vehemently in the case of R. Kelly? What is it that allows some people to brush off the allegations so lightly? We may never know. There is no convenient answer in situations such as these. But the law defaults to a person’s innocence. It’s something that is hard for many. But it’s the best we’ve got.
Dominic Jones (@DomPerinyon) is originally from Atlantic City, NJ. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. followed by law school at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC. In his spare time he enjoys art, photography, and documentary films.
Featured image courtesy of [Allgamenab via Wikipedia]