Thursday, March 10, 2011

Emotion and the presumption of innocence

So the Harris County DA's Office has egg on its face because a woman charged with six counts of reckless injury to a child and three counts of child abandonment up and flew back to Nigeria before she could be arrested. Jessica Tata is accused of leaving a household of children in her "day care" center unattended while she ran errands. During her absence a fire broke out and four of the children died.

It's a tragedy. There's no other way to describe it. And, if the allegations are true, Ms. Tata's conduct was beyond inexcusable.

But, she's only been charged. She's not been convicted.

That means that Ms. Tata is innocent unless the state proves her guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. She wasn't charged with anything at the time she boarded that plane back to Nigeria. She had every right to leave.

You see, sometimes the presumption of innocence can be hard to swallow.

Unless the police could muster probable cause to believe she committed a crime, they couldn't place her under arrest. Everyone seems to want to blame Pat Lykos or the fire marshall or someone for allowing Ms. Tata to leave the country. I don't think anyone's to "blame" for it because I don't think there's anything that you can blame on anyone in this case.

What should we do? Lower the standard of proof needed to arrest someone? Lower the standard just for suspects who aren't citizens of these United States? What about if a child is injured? Just what bad law do you propose we enact because something distasteful happened?

Maybe, just maybe, the "system" worked in this case. Maybe, just maybe, law enforcement dotted their i's and crossed their t's before trying to make an arrest. Maybe, just maybe, someone did not allow the emotion of children dying cloud their judgment when it came time to decide how to proceed.

Maybe this case is the perfect test of how deeply ingrained our belief in the presumption of innocence is. Is it better than one guilty person go free than that one innocent person is punished? How about ten guilty people going free? One hundred?

Jessica Tata is not guilty of anything. In fact, right now, she's innocent.

1 comment:

The Defence Brief said...

Here in England and Wales, the police can arrest pretty much where they think a crime might have happened and they suspect the detainee of said crime. Beyond that the only test is whether the arrest is necessary, which is rarely challenged. There is no such thing as probably cause.

There haven't been any major abuses of the power to arrest that I am aware of in the 18 months or so since arrests were made easier, but I am sure it will happen at some point.