Guilty Until Proven Innocent
By Nicole Pirshafiey
In this country, it has become tragically, heartbreakingly, infuriatingly easy to find examples of Americans being falsely accused of crimes. In this era of police brutality and white Americans waking up to the systemic racism inherent in our criminal justice system, you hardly have to scroll through Twitter to learn about another example of innocent people being falsely accused of a crime and being killed without ever being given a chance to prove their innocence.
From Emmitt Till to George Floyd, Black Americans have been paying for crimes they didn’t commit with their lives. In the case of Emmitt Till, his accuser admitted in 2017 that she lied about the exchange that led to the lynching that is often cited as a catalyst of the civil rights movement—a full fifty years after his gruesome murder. In 2020, we find ourselves learning daily about cases of false accusations that lead to the deaths of innocent Black Americans. The terrible truth is that this essay would be over 1,500 words if it were just a list of names of unarmed people wrongfully killed by the police.
Day after day, we are realizing that the Black and brown members of our communities are not afforded the same “innocent until proven guilty” assumption we all agree is part of the fabric of the American criminal justice system. And there’s no accountability for this, either. According to The Guardian, the FBI record of police killings doesn’t even include Eric Garner or Tamir Rice. The NYPD hadn’t submitted data to the FBI record since 2006, as of The Guardian’s reporting in 2015.
The system has allowed this continuous, horrifying pattern to continue. Innocent Black Americans killed for crimes they were never even convicted of, and never even given an opportunity to prove their innocence. They were presumed guilty, or perceived as a threat, and gunned down. In their homes, on our streets, across this entire country.
The truth is, I don’t need to fictionalize an account of someone being falsely accused of a crime. There are far, far too many real life examples of this happening in America. But let’s take it a step further. According to the Keller Law Offices, “there have been many reports of innocent people framed or wrongly convicted of criminal offenses. Once arrested for a crime, it can be difficult to prove innocence. Police officers are expected to conduct themselves honestly and professionally. When a suspect has prior arrests or criminal convictions, it can be tough to convince a jury that the person was framed by planted or mishandled evidence.” Even if the police officers followed proper protocol, it can be difficult to be exonerated once arrested for a crime. How can we pretend that our criminal justice system has any justice at all when so many Americans are executed immediately and never even given the opportunity to prove their innocence?
And in the cases of Breonna Taylor, or Elijah McClain, or Tony McDade, if we looked at the crimes they were allegedly thought to be associated with...if given the opportunity to prove their innocence in a court of law, what would the penalties be for what they may or may not have been charged with? Certainly not the death penalty. And they never even got the chance to prove their innocence.
George Floyd allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill. He was killed by a police officer.
Botham Jean was sitting in his own home and was perceived as a home intruder. He was killed by a police officer.
Philando Castille was pulled over during a traffic stop. He was killed by a police officer.
Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside of a shop. He was killed by a police officer.
Eric Garner was allegedly selling cigarettes on a sidewalk. He was killed by a police officer.
Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park. He was 12 years old. He was killed by a police officer.
How can we talk about the criminal justice system and the difficulties of proving innocence when falsely accused, when there are countless examples of these false accusations and perceived crimes resulting in the immediate, unlawful death of our fellow Americans? We have so much work to do to dismantle these systems, shine a light on the inequity of our criminal justice system specifically, and ensure that we are giving all Americans the opportunity to be “innocent until proven guilty.”