Two years ago, after the verdict was released in the infamous Casey Anthony trial, Facebook and Twitter suddenly exploded with millions of newly minted criminal justice experts writing things like, “Well, our justice system certainly has a lot of flaws,” and asking questions like, “What kind of country are we where someone who is clearly guilty walks free?” The same will probably be said of some other case where the jury ends up disagreeing with whatever decision the media lays down before all the facts are in, but that is criminal justice in America.

One of the most vital aspects of our criminal justice system — as defined through hundreds of years of both English and American common law — is the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. In a criminal trial, the judge will instruct the jury that, unless the prosecution has proven guilt of the defendant beyond any reasonable doubts, the defendant can’t be found guilty. In our criminal justice system, the entire burden of proof rests on the prosecution — the defense does not have to prove innocence. Our culture outside of the courtroom, however, is far different.

In a world of perp walks, Court TV, talking heads and social networks — where everyone finds their inner legal expert — all the key aspects of the greatest justice system developed are tossed aside in favor of sensationalism and mistruth. Sir William Blackstone, in his 1765 work “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” wrote the now famous expression, “the law holds it better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.” Blackstone’s “Commentaries” is one of the single most influential pieces of writing when it comes to American law, as many of our founding fathers and earliest judges and lawyers were trained under the ideals he expressed. The very foundation of criminal law is that justice should be served, but under no circumstances should a punishment be served to an innocent person. This means every so often, a guilty man may walk free. Our justice system isn’t perfect, but neither are any others.

The criminal justice system doesn’t become an abysmal failure when someone like Casey Anthony or O.J. Simpson walks free. The criminal justice system truly fails when millions of young men and women are sent to jail for petty, nonviolent crimes, ruining their chances of regaining a normal life. The criminal justice system truly fails when the death penalty remains in existence despite hundreds of innocent people being put to death or scheduled to be put to death based on shaky evidence. The criminal justice system truly fails when those who are rich and powerful regularly skirt justice while the poorest in society are given underpaid, overworked public defenders and forced into guilty pleas.

In the U.S., the number of incarcerated citizens per capita is higher than anywhere else in the world — even more so than China, Cuba and Iran. The only country that may come close to the U.S. is North Korea, where the numbers are unknown. Even then, some estimates still have the U.S. as number one when it comes to prisoners per capita — even ahead of the most notoriously abusive communist regime in the world. Furthermore, the only three countries in the world with a higher number of executions in 2011 than the U.S. are China, Iran and Yemen. Even Saudi Arabia — a country under Sharia law — executes fewer people than the U.S. Our criminal justice system, on paper, should be the brightest beacon of freedom and democracy that we have to offer, built on a fair and balanced system of laws and a refusal to convict the innocent. Instead, it has been transformed into a menacing, horrific monster willing to imprison the poorest and weakest among us.

In the next year or two, National Football League player Aaron Hernandez may go to trial for the murder charges he currently faces, and if he does, it will certainly be one of the most-covered cases in recent memory. If, by some chance, the man is acquitted, save your fingers the typing — it’s not because he’s famous. If anything, his ability to afford a good lawyer, the fact that he appears white, and weak evidence — not his celebrity — is what may acquit him. A football player getting off on murder isn’t the crux of what’s wrong with criminal justice in the U.S., despite what your aunt says on Facebook. The real problem is, well, everything else.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.