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Innocent Until Proven Guilty


The recent Penn State scandal, which rattled the country when it hit the news headlines this past November, can be traced back to the actions of one man: Jerry Sandusky.

A former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football program, Mr. Sandusky, 62, was arrested on November 5 on forty counts of sexual abuse of eight young boys over a 15-year period. The grand jury report—containing the testimony of eye witnesses—explains that Mr. Sandusky “had access to hundreds of boys” through the “Second Mile,” the organization he founded to help troubled kids; he was thereby able to prey on the ones most “vulnerable due to their social situations.”

Upon hearing the charges against Mr. Sandusky, I was naturally repulsed. But the fact that Mr. Sandusky betrayed, in the worst way imaginable, children whom he had committed to help made it all the more unbearable. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Sandusky was simply evil.

So when I found out that Mr. Sandusky agreed to an interview with Bob Costas shortly after his arrest, I was eager to hear what the nefarious pedophile had to say for himself. I knew I could probably augur what he’d say, and sure enough, I was right.

In the interview, Mr. Sandusky completely denied any illegal sexual activity with any child, although he did admit to some inappropriate “horsing around” in a shower. When asked if he is sexually attracted to young boys, he just replied, “I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.” A little creepy, wouldn’t you say?

The interview was coming to a close, and nothing too surprising had been divulged. I actually began to regret watching the predictable interview, as I had a good amount of work to do that night. But then Costas made his last remark, and my entire perception of Mr. Sandusky instantly – and unexpectedly - changed.

“Obviously,” said Costas, “you’re entitled to a presumption of innocence and you’ll receive a vigorous defense. On the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of information out there and fair-minded common sense people have concluded that you are guilty of monstrous acts…”

I was taken aback. I suddenly realized that subtly contained in those two sentences was a well known principle, which I completely failed to consider when first assessing Mr. Sandusky’s case: All are innocent until proven guilty. I began to ponder: if such a concept really exists, is it right that I, and an unforgiving public, have concluded that Mr. Sandusky is “guilty of monstrous acts” without allowing him a fair trial?

So I decided to do a bit of research on the matter, and after some good, old conscious reasoning, here’s what I’ve come up with: Presumption of innocence can be regarded as a purely legal tenet - one of obvious necessity in any fair judicial system. The accused cannot be expected to prove his innocence unless evidence is first presented indicating his guilt. But there need not be a bridge between the legal world and public discourse. Everyone then should feel free to arrive at whatever conclusions he or she wants—no matter how legally unjustified it is. Mr. Sandusky could be deemed, in the public eye, the most villainous child molester to ever walk the planet. No problem.

I believe, however, that although everyone is free to believe what he or she wants, that does not mean that everyone should jump to conclusions based on certain beliefs. Presumption of innocence should be part of public opinion, and Mr. Sandusky should be viewed as innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Here’s why:

It is human nature to jump to conclusions based on the first shred of information that comes to light—especially when the information concerns such heinous crimes as the ones Mr. Sandusky is being accused of. But the fact is that the public has a pretty poor track record of predicting the outcome of criminal cases. The Tawana Brawley case in the 1980s and the more recent Dominique Straus-Kahn case provide just two examples where the public media tarred and feathered important public figures in its presumption of guilt. Everyone knew that Brawley had indeed been raped by a bunch of white men, including some police officers. Everyone knew that Straus-Kahn had sexually assaulted a maid in a New York City hotel. In the end, though, both accusations were proved to be complete hoaxes.

Furthermore, look at how many people – some even after having signed admissions of guilt - have been exonerated from charges of which they were once found guilty. Thanks to the legal system and DNA testing, many of those whom the public regards as definite criminals turn out to be innocent all along.

The point is that fickle, unfounded assertions regarding criminal cases are simply unreliable, and they degrade society’s rational capabilities, causing damaging groupthink effects. They should be strongly discouraged and disregarded.

That’s why society must ultimately judge a case based on the evidence alone, which is the job of the legal system to evaluate—not the job of the public. The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence against Mr. Sandusky, as his trial has not yet begun. For those of you looking at the grand jury report for confirmation, it is insignificant. As the legal adage goes: “a good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham-sandwich.” It doesn’t take much to indict, and there exists a fair amount of criticism regarding the entire grand jury process.

But the most important source supporting my position is the Torah. In a recently published article on, Bradley Elbein writes, “There is the warning not to prejudge a situation, as it says: ‘Do not render an unfair decision…’ (Leviticus 19:15). Moreover, the Jewish laws against gossip are designed to prevent exactly the kind of torch-and-pitchfork rush to judgment that the Penn State case reveals. ‘Do not raise a false report, says the Torah’ (Exodus 23:1), which our Sages explain as a warning ‘not to receive or listen to evil reports.’”

In conclusion, we must admit that we do not know whether Mr. Sandusky is guilty, and that that determination should be left up to the judicial system. In the meantime, cool-headedness must prevail, and we should maintain that Mr. Sandusky is indeed innocent until the courts say otherwise. Mercurial, baseless opinions do a great disservice to society. To quote Mr. Elbein again: “Let’s douse the torches and put down the pitchforks until then.”