Codified in both the 5th and 14th amendments is the principal of due process, a Constitutional bedrock that ensures that at both the national and state levels, individuals are afforded the full scope of legal rights entitled to them, among them presumption of innocence. Though Hollywood has spent years trivializing it, the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” remains a tenet of our criminal justice system and a critical protection against unjust prosecutions. Unfortunately, lawmakers in Michigan don’t share the respect for these rights with our Founding Fathers.
State Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-Dewitt) and Rep. David Law (R-Commerce Township) each recently sponsored a bill in his respective house that would make past actions admissible as character evidence in cases involving sex crimes against children. The right-veering state Senate and House of Representatives have unanimously passed the bill, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm has promised to sign it.
Granholm and others involved must consider the unconstitutional implications of this law, and the Legislature would be well advised to stop using the hot-button issue of sex crimes against children to build political capital. Because the bill has already cleared the Legislature, Granholm must veto it.
Allowing the consideration of more than just criminal records, the bill would also permit juries to consider offenses for which an individual was neither charged nor convicted, opening the floodgates for character attacks and erecting even more hurdles for defendants. Such testimony would prejudice juries in favor of conviction. With such statutes in place, sex crime convictions effectively become life sentences, a legal stigma no period of prison time can erase.
An attempt to score points by exploiting a sensitive policy issue, the bill is political opportunism at its worst — not to mention an affront to the precepts of constitutional due process.
Fundamentally, personal history in the courtroom negates the clean slate a defendant is entitled to before standing trial. If the presumption of innocence is to continue governing jury calculations, unrelated and prejudicial evidence cannot cloud the facts of the case. As F. Martin Tieber, the former president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan explained, the prosecutor’s task is to ask whether the defendant molested a child, not whether the defendant is a child molester.