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Pete Williams: The presumption of innocence

Ginny Kirkley’s letter to the editor on Nov. 14 regarding “The presumption of innocence until proven guilty” illustrates a common misunderstanding of the Constitution and the law.

She states, correctly, that, “The legal concept is that the guilt of an accused person cannot be presumed and that they must be assumed to be innocent until proven otherwise.” She then uses this principle to decry how Judge Kavanaugh was treated.

Only one problem with her logic — the presumption of innocence applies in criminal cases, not civil law suits or administrative matters such as applications for security clearances, job interviews, or hearings to gather information on prospective appointees, like Kavanaugh. The theory behind the presumption of innocence applying only to criminal cases is that it is better that a guilty person escape conviction than for an innocent prison to be sent to prison. The Supreme Court hearings are not a criminal proceeding — and thus the presumption of innocence was not applicable to the Kavanaugh hearings.

And, it goes a bit further. Let’s say that someone applied for a security clearance, but there was some evidence that the applicant had committed a crime. The burden of proof would then shift to the applicant to present evidence to refute the allegation. And those making the decision on the security clearance might deny it if there was doubt about the applicant’s innocence — they would not need to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. One might argue that is what happened in the Kavanaugh case — that he credibly refuted professor Ford’s accusations. Others may think that he did not. Either way, he was not entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Kirkley may think that Kavanaugh was treated unfairly, but it had nothing to do with the presumption of innocence.

Pete Williams lives in Nevada City.


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