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Roethlisberger Media Coverage: A Refresher on the Presumption of Innocence.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | March 7, 2010

As yet another high profile case gets big time media attention, it is necessary for us to remind ourselves that news coverage is not a trial and news reports are not evidence.

Recently, the story of an accusation of  sexual assault at a nightclub in a Georgia college town hit the news before there was any substantive news to hit.  The fact that one of the participants in the events of that evening was Ben Roethlisberger set off big time news coverage, despite the fact that no official accusation has been made by the police. No one has been arrested and no one has been charged.

A classic illustration of the reason behind the principle that accused persons must be presumed innocent until a fair trial has been conducted was the premature punishment of members of the Duke University soccer team by the University administration and unofficially by practically the entire community.  The University administration couldn’t wait for a judicial determination to run its course and took hasty action without due process. Eventually, the prosecution case collapsed under its own weight. The prosecutor himself was eventually disbarred for falsifying evidence.  We should always bear in mind that such things can and do happen.  When they do, lives can be irreparably harmed and even destroyed.

News stories, even when carefully written are not evidence.  The refusal of defense counsel to air his or her theory of the case in the press means nothing, except that the proper time and place is at trial.  But, in case we have forgotten, the defense doesn’t have to say a thing, not even to the judge and jury. The prosecution must prove its case  with probative and relevant evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Beyond a reasonable doubt: what does that mean?  It means that, after hearing all of the admissible evidence, the finder of fact must find the accused not guilty if there is room for reasonable doubt.  The accused must be given the “benefit of the doubt”, provided that the doubt is reasonable.

The human mind automatically seeks to make sense out of the perceptions referred by the senses. Suspending judgment requires us to consciously hold this automatic tendency at bay. This is a mental discipline worth cultivating. It enables us to take a more considered view of other matters, matters within our personal sphere of influence, that can easily be misjudged before all of the facts are available.

In this media-driven world, there is plenty of opportunity to practice this skill.


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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