The Presumption of Guilt is Difficult to Overcome

We will be hearing a great deal more over the coming days/weeks/months about Georgia Thompson, primarily because her case is now being investigated by Congress in the dismissal of US Attorneys controversy

But the recent appellate decision by the 7th US Court of Appeals that not only reversed her conviction, but actually acquitted her and ordered her release the same day is perhaps more notable for what it says about our criminal justice system, and how juries react to “evidence” than it is for the political fallout.

The jury convicted Ms. Thompson of 2 federal felony charges: causing misapplication of funds, and participating in a scheme to defraud the State of Wisconsin of the right to honest services, supposedly because she was involved in awarding a government contract to a company, not because they deserved it, but because she knew they had made a legal political donation to a sitting Democratic governor. In other words, for steering the contract to the company on the basis of essentially a kickback.

Now, without regard to the political motivation for the prosecution in the first place, was there even one tiny flaw with the Government’s case? Well…

No evidence, none, zip, zilch, nada to indicate that Ms. Thompson even knew that the company had donated to the governor’s campaign. Nothing. Literally nothing. (And again, it was a legal contribution.)

Listen here to approximately minute 12:30 of the oral arguments, where the State’s Attorney is asked, right off the bat:

Judge: Is your opponent correct that there is nothing in the record to indicate that the lady was aware of any contribution?

State’s Attorney: Of contributions specifically, that’s correct…

Shame on the prosecutors for bringing such a case in the first place. No evidence is no evidence, smoke and mirrors not withstanding.

Human beings know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and too often this concept is applied by juries in criminal cases. The general public is probably unaware of how rare it is for an appellate court to not only reverse a conviction (say, because some evidence was improperly introduced, necessitating a new trial) but to actually acquit a defendant.

Ordering her immediate release is possibly unprecedented. And even further proof that the State’s case wasn’t just weak, but truly unjust.

We have to be able to rely on juries, however, to correct such blatant errors of prosecutorial overreaching.

Our jury system may be the best thing going, but this is pretty firm proof that juries wrongly convict more often than we like to admit.

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Donna - January 16, 2008 9:17 PM

However, take a person accussed of an email sent from their hotmail account (where access to their pc by a hacker provided that person access to every password and secured file), and images of pornography from that same hacker abusing the system, looking to fulfill their deviant desires (where the pc owner is still blamed for the crime by association - not facts), and you have the same case. No proof - NONE - whatsoever that they knew. In fact, the Oregon Attorney General just attacked the RIAA (and was reaffirmed in civil court) for presenting the elements of a crime, but no proof of the act by the defendant. This has upset the AG, and several courts. But, that's just civil (where the witnessed download, screen name, IP address and files on the computer - all together, were STILL not enough to prove any facts of the defendant's guilt) - where in criminal cases the burden of proof is much greater, but as it is with Thompson, and people convicted of knowing possession, the lack of evidence is not preventing these cases from going to trial. While Thompson had the money and support to get back out of jail, even after her money and support wasn't enough to stop it in the first place - imagine what people who have to rely on public defenders who don't try or care, have to go through.

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