What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
The conviction of Colm Murphy by the Special non-jury Court despite proven Garda forgery of a statement is examined here by Fr Des Wilson.

A man was jailed in a recent case in which so many rules either broken or bent that he will be able to appeal on more than 30 grounds.

What is going wrong?

For political reasons the principle that people are innocent until proved guilty has been scrapped. Judges can now say they will not grant bail because a person “might commit further offence” before he or she has even been shown to have committed any.

And now a person’s previous convictions are being taken into account as part of the judgement - we had always been led to believe these should never even be mentioned until it came time for sentencing in case it might prejudice jury or judge. And we had a principle that in court the best and strongest evidence should be presented and accusations had to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Now that is gone too and police can present flimsy evidence and judges can accept it.

Firm evidence should be required by judges, but now they can decide which witness to believe by looking at them - “I consider that witness by his demeanour to be trustworthy”, “I judge that one over there to be untrustworthy, because of his demeanour”. Demeanour, not evidence, then becomes the deciding factor in whether a judge will accept your evidence or not. It is a slight variation on the principle that if you came to court dressed in jeans and broken shoes you were likely to be disbelieved, whereas if you dress as if you were just out of a meeting of the bank board you had a better chance. Class and politics are alive and well and sneaking around our courts.

And in those cases where confessions are supposed to have been made but were inconveniently not signed, in political cases that is all right. It is also all right to have police in the witness box admitting to having forged signatures or documents - that does not invalidate the prosecution case.

It is small wonder that police on both sides of the border are saying they can bring people to “justice”. If the standard of evidence remains as it is now, even your wee nephew could bring people to court without knowing anything about either the law or the deed - and get them convicted.

As has been pointed out many times, such standards in courts put people in extreme danger of wrong convictions and have another unavoidable result, namely that police seeing the low standard of investigation and evidence will take advantage, life people and fling them into prison, not in order to get justice, but in order to close their files. It is good to be able to say that the files on fifty cases have been closed but for those closed files you may also have fifty people in closed cells who should not be there.

And so no matter what you may think of this defendant or that one, every case should be look at with the greatest possible care and the strictest possible standards of behaviour and evidence demanded of everybody concerned, including judges. Judges inflict such differing sentences on different people that that is reason enough for alarm.

Every decision of every judge should be examined by an independent body and if a judge is unsatisfactory or unstable or careless or lacking in respect for lawyers or others in court, he or she should be told to go. Justice is too important to be administered by people who cannot be depended on to be calm, dignified and wise in all political situations. And politics should not be allowed to influence judgements.

“The public good” means more than just carrying out government policies. It means fair, impartial administering of law whether you like the end result or not.

Hanging over all this is the question of whether we really believe in democracy and justice, fairness and equality or not.

If we believe in these things we would not for a moment tolerate, for example, people standing outside a courthouse jeering and threatening people who are on their way to be tried. People who have not been proved to have done anything wrong. Nor would we tolerate anyone in a public gave false evidence.

“Thou shalt not give false evidence against thy neighbour” is one of the basic command-ments people say comes not from human law but from God. And yet false or suspect evidence seems at times to be treated with remarkable sympathy by people who insist they accept that godly commandment.

All this must change and if we are serious about a new deal for people we have to insist that it is changed. Whoever is in government and responsible for law must remember the words which will always ring in our ears whether we believe in them or not: “What good does it do you to gain the whole world if you lose your soul to do it?” Unjust police and slovenly courts do not deserve public support or public pay.

People deserve better treatment -- and that include those who are accused by them.

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