What Happened to the Presumption of Innocence in Ferguson?

Image: Bernard Pollack
Image: Bernard Pollack
I have often called for the prosecution of police officers who violate people’s rights. But I also believe in the presumption of innocence. It seems that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon does not. In a recent statement (cited by Fox News), Nixon says, “A police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in broad daylight. . . . A vigorous prosecution must now be pursued. The democratically elected St. Louis prosecutor and the attorney general of the United States each have a job to do.” (Fox2 has the complete video.) But if it’s the prosecutor’s job to decide whether the evidence warrants prosecution, then why is Nixon telling the prosecutor how to do his job?

I have no idea whether the police shooting of Brown was justified. And I doubt anyone else does, either—except the officer in question. If the police officer in question had been wearing a video camera—I’ve also frequently endorsed putting cameras on all officers active with the public—we would almost certainly have good evidence one way or the other. But the limited evidence I’ve seen could support very different interpretations of what happened. Nixon’s observation that the officer shot Brown “in broad daylight” is ridiculous; daylight doesn’t make someone less aggressive—if Brown was indeed acting aggressively.

We already know that the officer in question shot Brown in the front, not the back—as was frequently claimed at the outset. We also know that Brown had almost certainly just finished robbing a local store and assaulting its employee—something that demonstrates that Brown was a violent man at least sometimes. Was he charging the officer at the time of the shooting or trying to surrender? I don’t know, and anyone who claims to know I regard with suspicion.

The presumption of innocence means the officer is presumed not to have acted criminally, unless the evidence convincingly shows otherwise. The fact that a bunch of people are angry (and that some of those people are smashing and looting stores and assaulting the police) is not a reason to upend a cornerstone of American justice.

Did you say prosecution, governor, or persecution?