Monday, March 05, 2007

The presumption of innocence

In non-totalitarian countries, there is a presumption of innocence. In other words, people are presumed innocent of a crime until found guilty in the court of law. This means that people don't have to prove their innocence, and that they get their case tried at court.
Certain democratic countries ignore the presumption of innocence for certain groups of people, but that's a subject for a different post.

This post is about the presumption of innocence as it extents to the victims.

When dealing with most crime, it's assumed that the victims are speaking the truth when they report a crime and accuse someone for it. It might be that the person they accuse is found not-guilty, but then it’s generally assumed that there wasn’t enough evidence or that the accuser was wrong about who was guilty of the crime.

However, for a specific type of crime, sexual assaults (including rape and rape attempts), people often feel completely justified in claiming that the victim is accusing someone unjustly, and even that the crime didn't actually happen.
They are not saying that the victim is wrong about who did it (making a wrong accusation), but that the victim is accusing someone they know didn't do it (making a false accusation), often for a crime never committed.
What happened to the presumption of innocence? Here, it’s apparently non-existent.

According to FBI's 1996 crime index reported (pdf), 8% of all rape reporting were found to be “false or baseless”. This is higher than the rate of other crime (which is 2% according to the same report), but it doesn't take into consideration how much harder it is to prove a rape than other crime, since you have to prove both the physical act and the lack of consent.
An example from last year, that many people would consider a clear cut case of rape, but which ended in acquittal, can be found over at Lawyers, Guns and Money.
I should also mention that this crime is the only crime category where it looks like the FBI has included the percentage of “false or baseless” accusations. It's hardly surprising, but not conductive to the presumption of innocence of the victim.

What I would like to make clear, is that while one should remember that anyone accused of a crime should be presumed innocent, one should also remember that the victim should be considered innocent.
Would you doubt someone who said that they had been mugged? No you wouldn't. Then why would you doubt anyone else who said that they had been the victim of a crime? False accusations happen, but they are generally quickly found out. Wrong accusations happen more often, and they might take time to solve. True accusations happen most often, but unfortunately don't always lead to convictions.

Rape is notoriously underreported, and the lack of presumption of innocence towards the victims only makes this problem worse.
Making false accusations, and allowing false accusations to be made, against the victims will only make other victims more afraid of reporting the crimes.

I am all for punishing people who make false accusations against other people, be they accused of a crime, or the victims of a crime.
If someone accuses someone of making a false accusations (a crime), they should be held responsible for this accusation, unless it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in the court of law.
The non-conviction of someone accused of rape isn't evidence enough of the accusation being false.

Note: No specific case was the cause for me to write this post. Rather it is the result of some thoughts I've had for quite a while. Since I haven't had a blog for that long, it will probably not be the last time I'll post one of these end results of a thought process.



Blogger matthew.ruff said...

As a Criminal Defense Lawyer I have witnessed firsthand the devastating affects of false accusations. I think the perpertator of such an offense should be punished more severely, the fact is they are not.

August 02, 2007 1:25 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

I agree that people who make false accusations should be punished severely, but as I stated in my post, it's important to presume the innocence of the accusor until he or she is proven guilty.

August 02, 2007 7:34 PM  

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