To be honest, I was gleeful when I saw the news yesterday that Richard Scrushy had been acquitted on all counts. It's not that I'm convinced that he's innocent. I don't know what he did, anymore than I know the truth about Michael Jackson or OJ. Or, for that matter, about the kid accused of burglary on whose jury I sat a couple of years ago, when we found him not guilty. I do know that in that case I was confident that the prosecution had not proved the charge, and eleven of my fellow citizens agreed.
What I found so appalling in the Scrushy saga was how quickly the community turned on him. When I came to Birmingham, a decade ago, Scrushy was the emblem of local country boy done good, and with his vast philanthropy (community colleges and local libraries were his favorite recipients), he appeared to be widely respected and admired. His country band was proof that he was no straight-laced corporate cutthroat and if he seemed to take excessive enjoyment from his boats and houses and airplanes, well, that is the American Dream, isn't it? And he earned it after all, didn't he?
Based on the rush to declare him guilty as soon as the charges and countercharges began to mount, one can only assume that much of that admiration was fake, the sycophancy of the envious who were still hopeful that they could flatter him into throwing some of that largesse their way. Letter after letter appeared in the local newspaper painting him the devil incarnate, who had betrayed and defrauded all those people who had trusted so in him. And this was before formal charges had even been filed.
The bits of analysis that I've seen so far all still presume guilt, by the way. The explanations for the acquitals are that it was a mistake to try the case in Birmingham, that Scrushy successfully played the race/religion card, that the prosecution muddied the case by bringing up too many complicated charges and too many witnesses, that the judge was a neophyte in criminal law who appeared unsympathetic to the state, that the lead defense lawyer was "folksy" and that the prosecutors were boring. I have yet to see anyone suggest that justice has been served.
The trial-by-jury system that we use, which presumes innocence, and places the heaviest burden on the prosecution, is based on a very simple principle -- it is impossible to design a system that can determine, with 100% accuracy, who is innocent and who is guilty. In any system, some who are guilty will get off, and some who are innocent will be imprisoned (or, in our unbelievably barbaric system, put to death). A civil society needs to decide in which direction it is willing to err. We hear, all the time, people gnashing their teeth and railing against the "rights of the guilty". But all of these complicated processes and rules, which do in fact sometimes result in guilty people getting off, are designed to protect the innocent -- the unjustly accused.
But in this age of screaming media and instapundits everywhere, jumping to judgment is a spectator sport in which everyone is invited to play. The sooner one makes up one's mind, the sooner one can revel in fuming, frothing indignation over the malfeasance, belligerence, or sheer stupidity of anyone who disagrees. And when the jury verdict finally comes in, we can trumpet with unshakeable righteousness about whether they got it right, or have made a travesty of the jury system.
The Scrushy verdict signals that the presumption of innocence is not yet quite dead in America, despite how much that horrifies all those people to whom the whole truth is so instantly obvious.
Who was it that said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged?" Probably some lowlife loser that everybody knew was guilty.