By Ryan Lau | USA
The Salem Witch Trials officially were ended in May of 1693. During that time, many women were accused without infallible evidence of what was seen to be a horrible crime. We as an educated populace recognize the tragedy that was the Salem Witch Trials and have vowed to never again return to such an air of mob mentality. So, why is it then, that we as a nation simply cannot abandon this disastrous and accusatory state of believing guilt without proper evidence?
Just this morning, NBC’s Matt Lauer was fired by the news company after an anonymous female coworker claimed he behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner towards her during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Anyone who has watched the news since the Harvey Weinstein scandal began just over a month ago knows that Lauer is not alone. In fact, dozens of men have been accused of sexual misconduct. The only thing missing, in most scenarios, is the proof.
Before going any further, I would like to make it incredibly clear that both myself and 71 Republic strongly condemn all actions of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. This condemnation is not gender-specific, as poor sexual behavior by any individual is a truly despicable act. I firmly believe that if an adequate conviction can be made with irrefutable evidence, subsequent actions must be taken immediately. The simple fact of the matter is that there often is no proper evidence. As a sort of cookie cutter formatting for a sexual misconduct case, there is a distinct two-step process. First, an individual, usually with the help of a lawyer, makes a claim that he or she has been treated immodestly. Second, the accused party is immediately stripped of any social standing they may have, often including the loss of any hopes of a stable career.
But wait just one minute. Doesn’t that skip a step? The one in which we recognize the concept of innocent until proven guilty? The long-standing principle of our court system clearly should be applied in this scenario, as it would protect those who are being wrongly accused. This is in no way suggesting that in every scenario, an individual is lying about a sexual assault claim. I am merely pointing out that it is horrific to assume that the accused party is guilty, just as it is horrific to assume the accusing party is a liar.
To provide an astonishing bit of evidence that may help emphasize the gravity of this situation, I examined a 2014 study done by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analyzed the rate of exoneration for convicted felons on death row. The results were incredible. The percentages of exonerations, given a prisoner spends indefinite time on death row, was conservatively estimated to be 4.1%. This figure still does not include those innocents who would remain on death row permanently, as it is an established fact that courts do not always come up with the proper verdict.
How, though, does this link back to the Salem-like accusations against prominent men like Lauer? Well, court cases involving the death penalty naturally are put under a greater degree of scrutiny. In the mandatory appeals process, innocence is sought out through the Direct Appeal and the Federal Habeas Corpus. Despite this extensive process, which annually costs $90,000 more than simply keeping a prisoner for life, at least one in every twenty-five found guilty is later realized to be innocent, even after all resources previously available were exhausted.
On the other hand, the average sexual misconduct accusation clearly does not come with over a hundred thousand dollars a year in mandatory appeals funding. In fact, there is never any at all, as sexual misconduct, excluding some instances of rape, is never punishable by death. Now, given that this research is not readily available to represent the accused, one can reasonably infer that there is a greater margin of error. Thus, a much higher number of 4.1% of the accused are most likely not entirely guilty of their accusation. With such staggeringly high rates, it is incredibly injudicious to assume the guilt of the accused in this scenario. Even if the rate of innocence was one percent, the rights of those one percent must be protected, but as that figure is likely much higher, it becomes all the more important.
Barring the potentiality of the existence of unreleased evidence regarding the matter, NBC made an incredibly poor choice in terminating Lauer’s contract. Though they, as a private employer, have every right to do as they please with the contracts of their employees, this action was clearly unjustified. We saw a similar pattern of unquestioned belief in accusation during the Salem Witch Trials. It resurfaced again during the Red Scare. I now dare to ask, what will it take before we as a society recognize the need for evidence-based conviction?