The Washington Post’s five-column headline on Tuesday was, “Prosecutors: Vincent Gray Knew.”
Note that the word “allege” is not in the headline.
The top federal prosecutor, D.C. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., is quoted at a press conference as asserting the fact — before trial — that District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray knew about “businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson’s conspiracy to pump more than $600,000 in illegal donations into the campaign.”
In other words, a federal prosecutor, before indictment, before any evidence has been introduced at a trial, before a verdict, has pronounced Gray guilty of a serious crime at a press conference.
The mayor immediately responded: “These are lies.” He points out that Thompson, the key witness against Gray, is a convicted felon.
In today’s presumption-of-guilt culture, where headlines and accusation too often become surrogates for fact and truth, clearly Machen’s assertions and the headlines will have an adverse political effect on Gray. Another Post story quoted a D.C. resident named Caren Kirkland, for example, who said of Gray: “I feel like he sold the entire city out.”
Full disclosure: I work in the District (and live in Maryland) and have been a supporter of the mayor and think he has done a good job. Given the headlines over the last four years implying he has committed various crimes associated with his 2010 election campaign, it is amazing to me that he has survived even to run for re-nomination.
From what I’ve read, he has a pretty good record: unemployment is down over the last four years, from 11 percent to 7.6 percent; his budget has resulted in three straight years of surpluses; more than $180 million has been invested in affordable housing; public school students are showing significant improvements in urban area standard testing; crime rates have fallen; there are increased cops on the streets, etc.
The presumption of innocence — that every citizen is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt — is a fundamental principle implicit in the due process clause of the 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. So the Supreme Court held in 1895. The U.S. attorney is bound by that principle as much as everyone else in the criminal justice system.
Yet in today’s culture, many people actually believe — as Kirkland does — that where there is smoke (headlines of wrong-doing), there must be fire.
This isn’t the first time that I have written about my unease with prosecutors, the media and the public who ignore the presumption of innocence.