About a month after K-State researcher Vasanta Pallem died of smoke inhalation, Patrick Scahill and K-State student Virginia Griese, sophomore in biology, are awaiting trial for murder and arson. But you wouldn’t know it by what you hear on the campus grapevine. To hear many students tell it, you’d think the two had already been tried and convicted.
Aside from the charges and the identities of those involved, the police have released scarcely any information about the case. In the court of public opinion, however, it seems the charges alone are apparently sufficient evidence to determine a person’s guilt.
The French philosopher Voltaire said, “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.” On paper, this thinking grounds our society’s approach to criminal justice. In practice, however, many people are content to exclude words like “accused of” or “allegedly” from their descriptions of crimes — even when the price of saving a breath may be the impartiality of future jurors.
Due process exists precisely because we cannot simply assume the government is correct. Police and prosecutors are susceptible to human error and cannot be trusted unconditionally. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 7 percent of defendants were found not guilty in 2011. This number may seem trivial until one realizes that it represents thousands of people whose lives were torn apart by false accusations. Additionally, this statistic does nothing to tell us how many innocent people may have been railroaded into accepting plea deals.
Those who do take bargains to avoid wrongful conviction certainly have valid fears. According to a May 2012 CNN article by Mallory Simon, the first national registry of exonerations found that more than 2,000 Americans have been exonerated after being convicted of serious crimes since 1989. “These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about,” stated a report released by college researchers working on the registry.
According to the article, James Bain, the longest-serving prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence, was imprisoned for 35 years. Though prosecutors lacked physical evidence against him, Bain was sentenced to life in prison based on the testimony of his alleged victim.
In fact, eyewitness testimony is the leading culprit in wrongful convictions. In cases of homicide, sexual assault and even child sexual abuse, most wrongful convictions occur because juries take witnesses at their word, the report showed. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization, eyewitness identification has contributed to 75 percent of the 301 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence.
The unreliability of eyewitness testimony may be especially relevant to the ongoing Manhattan case. Using forensic evidence to identify arson suspects is a hopeless venture. Arrests are made in only about 28 percent of arson cases nationally, according to a Jan. 16, 2011, Wichita Eagle article by Stan Finger. Remarkably, however, police arrested Scahill and Griese and charged them with murder mere hours after Pallem passed away. It stands to reason that police were acting based on what they found to be compelling testimony.
Whether the evidence is actually compelling remains to be determined. However, there must be a true determination rather than the careless assumption that too many seem content with. If today’s students are one day to shoulder the burden of full civic participation, then we should at least bother to distinguish between charges and convictions. We should remember that people are innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt — even though we’ve learned to assume the opposite.
Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.