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Trial by Media

In today's age, with everyone having endless information at their fingertips, the rush to judgment is commonplace.

Paul Albaugh · Jun. 20, 2017

Far too often when a crime occurs, people often tend to rush to judgment on who did it, what happened, why it happened and what the consequences should be for those involved. In today’s age, with everyone having endless information at their fingertips, this has become commonplace.

The mainstream media is guilty of rushing to judgment on most issues, and tragic events such as a death or murder are no exception. It can also be said that the mainstream media often pours gasoline on the fire — all to keep people tuned in to the disaster. More often than not, tragedies end up being glorified by continuous coverage and the speculations and opinions spewed forth by the “news experts” are designed more to get people talking than they are to carefully weigh the facts.

It’s as if the accused are going through trial by media before they get to their trial by jury. Two criminal cases decided on Friday serve as examples.

The first case involved Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who shot to death Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July of last year. Yanez faced a trial by jury and was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges related to the incident.

Recall that the media had repeated the narrative that Officer Yanez had murdered an armed but law-abiding citizen who had done nothing wrong, and it was most likely, the story went, because of racism. The facts presented to the jury showed that Officer Yanez was following protocol. Castile lawfully informed Yanez that he was carrying a firearm, although he told the officer after being asked for his driver’s license. Yanez told Castile “don’t reach for it” once and “don’t pull it out” twice before he opened fire on Castile, who was reaching for something.

It really doesn’t matter what Castile was reaching for — as Officer Yanez testified, he felt that his life was in danger. Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat at the time, insisted Castile was reaching for his driver’s license, not his gun. What is undisputed is that Castile was reaching for something. Should Officer Yanez have been a bit clearer in his instructions? Absolutely. Should Castile have stopped reaching for whatever he was reaching for and placed his hands in view and asked for clearer instructions from officer Yanez? Absolutely.

Tragically, Castile lost his life. Yanez, despite being acquitted, has been relieved of his duties as a law enforcement officer and will live the rest of his life with the decision he made that day. Yanez is certain to face more trial by media on the verdict, but, with the facts before them, the jury could not “beyond a reasonable doubt” charge Yanez with manslaughter.

The second case involved Michelle Carter, a young woman who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — Massachusetts Judge Lawrence Moniz found her responsible for the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. (Carter waived her right to a trial by jury.) Carter had been sending her boyfriend text messages and calling him in the days and weeks ahead of his death, telling him repeatedly to kill himself.

Some commentators condemned the decision. National Review’s David French called it a “terrible verdict,” arguing that Carter should not be held responsible for her boyfriend’s death because Roy was the one who carried out the action in killing himself. Meanwhile, Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw echoed similar sentiments and argued that Carter in essence has been charged with a thought crime. That is, she thought that her boyfriend should kill himself and she told him to do so. Do we really want the courts punishing people for their thoughts and words?

Carter arguably had the right to say what she did to her boyfriend, but were her words consequence free? Was it right that she initiated a form of psychological bullying to the point that it prompted her boyfriend to take his own life? Words have meaning and words have consequences — ask Rep. Steve Scalise. Roy was mentally unstable and it seems that Carter may be as well.

The point of briefly covering these two cases is this: We have a justice system in place to decide cases. We should not rush to judge other people based on a few newspaper headlines or breaking news stories that rarely ever present all of the facts and evidence. The American justice system features the concept of innocent until proven guilty, and that hasn’t changed despite news stories that portray people as guilty until proven innocent. Americans have the right to a trial by jury for a reason — so that all of the evidence and facts can be presented and decided by our peers.

Is our justice system perfect? Do all trials end up with justice being truly served? Sadly no, but the media would serve the public far better if it would do more reporting and less adjudicating, and leave the rest up to the jurors and the court system.

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