By: Michael Panelli, JS Major
The American criminal justice system is far from perfect. Ideally, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, and the defense does not have to prove anything. However, bias exists in the courtroom, even though we do not want to admit it. The courts have policies that attempt to prevent bias and protect the presumption of innocence during trial, and defense attorneys in particular are concerned with attaining a fair trial for their clients, a Sixth Amendment right. Bias has no place in the criminal justice system, but the presence of bias has undoubtedly shaped the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants through an illusion of presumption of innocence. Rather, the American justice system has created a “guilty until proven innocent” ideology, which only enhances the power of the prosecutor in the courtroom and strips the defendant of a fair and impartial trial.
Each individual has his or her own set of beliefs about crime and offenders. A common perception is that criminals, regardless of crime, deserve to be punished, exemplifying the fact that American society has become more punitive now than at any point in history. Americans fear crime, and once they see the defendant in shackles and an orange jumpsuit at the courthouse, the public believes the defendant is guilty without a second thought. During voir dire, the jury pool is advised against holding any prejudice or bias against the defendant merely because he or she is on trial. However, jurors have a predetermined judgment of the defendant based on his or her appearance in court. For example, a 40-year old, clean-shaven white male appears better and more likeable in court than a 40-year old, tattooed Hispanic male. Additionally, by understanding the charge for which the defendant is being tried, jurors can piece together a biased image of the defendant committing the crime, which seeps into their subconscious while deciding a verdict. Jurors for American criminal trials are representative of everyday citizens, and they are just as likely to be swayed by a common prejudiced or biased belief as another.
In the summer of 2012, I interned with a private defense attorney in Martinez, California. On my first day of work, I observed the beginning stages of jury selection and voir dire for a first-degree murder trial; the process continued for nearly two weeks. I only assisted with some evidence, but the biggest learning experience was seeing the bias in the courtroom. The defendant was a 40-year old Hispanic male with a shaved head and tattoos on his arms; he was accused of murdering his friend, the boyfriend of the girl he recently attempted to date. Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor agreed on one thing: The defendant was holding the gun when it was fired, and the victim died as a result. However, the defense argued that the defendant had no motive to kill the victim–the two were friends–and claimed it was an act of negligence; the defense sought an involuntary manslaughter charge compared to first-degree murder. The trial only lasted a week and a half, but the evidence presented contradicted the prosecution’s chronology of events, and even the lead detective was caught in a gaffe (at the crime scene, he could not tell right from left). After two days of deliberating, the jury returned a guilty verdict in favor of second-degree murder. At sentencing, the defendant received a minimum of 50 years in prison. The jury saw a strong, ethnic man, but that was all they saw, and they could not see the human being behind it. There was no doubt that the defendant was guilty of a crime, but the extent to which he was convicted was a crime in and of itself.
I want to make my point clear: Just because there is bias in the courtroom does not mean that the defendant did not commit the crime. Most offenders get to the trial stage primarily because they are guilty of violating a law; that has never been disputed in this post. Defendants are defendants for a reason, but the American public forgets that even defendants have rights that must be upheld in court. Defendants have the right to an attorney, protection against double jeopardy, and the right to a fair and impartial trial. Because of jurors’ misguided preconceptions of defendants and society’s stigmatization of criminals, defendants are unofficially stripped of the right to a fair trial. A defendant that is automatically presumed guilty stands little to no chance of exoneration, an aberration for which the Founding Fathers would not have stood. The American criminal justice system must implement and enforce new policies that prevent bias from occurring in courtrooms to reinstate the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”