Michael Jackson and Civics 101

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The Michael Jackson circus is back on your TV - be thankful it's not in your town. Mr. Jackson's die-hard fans proclaim their verdict in interviews, affirming his innocence - "no matter what the facts are." We can only hope that the jurors being selected now in the pop star's child-molestation trial in California have a more sophisticated view of the relationship between the facts and their verdict.

Jackson is neither the first nor the last celebrity to burn, rather than bask, in a limelight not of his choosing.

These public humiliations give us another civic opportunity to think about presumption of innocence. Within both Canada's and America's criminal justice systems, we are all entitled to it. To have it for ourselves, we must give it to others: We must remember the distinction between allegations and proof, between verdicts and truth.

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It's a real distinction.

Consider Hurricane Carter, or any of the lifers and death-row inmates now cleared by advances in DNA analysis.

Or consider another notorious case that never came to trial. Not that it mattered - the facts alleged by the government were so inflammatory and so widely believed that a fair jury would have been impossible. Even so, the alleged perpetrator was as good as convicted - thought by all to be guilty. Unfairly, many now believe. But we won't petition the Department of Justice in this case. The court of public opinion is outside their jurisdiction, and some statute of limitations must be in force. After all, it has been more than 500 years.

When Richard III died in 1485 at Bosworth Field, his enemies set out to thoroughly vilify him. Shakespeare administered the coup de grace, dramatizing an over-the-top but memorable villain. Who else but a villain could have murdered his own nephews - two small boys, albeit princes royal? Who else but Richard III?

Odd you should ask. Richard was deposed by Henry VII, founder of the Tudor line. Since Elizabeth I died in 1603, ending the Tudor line, historians not under the Tudor thumb have presented other theories of the crime, and other views of Richard - progressive king, courageous soldier, able administrator, family man. Societies in England, Canada, and the US have tried to rehabilitate the man's memory - long overdue, if they're right.

The case for Richard is interesting - even compelling. There is evidence he was loved in his day.

"This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of the city," the city of York grieved in its official records, immediately after the battle.

You could look it up. You could read why many historians believe that Henry Tudor killed the princes, while most of us believe Richard was a murderer most foul. But why should you? Why should you care what really happened in 1485?

I can only tell you why I care.

I know that I won't be a name in history - no inventions to my credit, no laws of human nature named after me - and that's OK. But to be remembered down the centuries with the equivalent of a hissing and a spitting - and unfairly - would be a bit much.

Richard's reputation problem beautifully illustrates how persistent a story can be. In physics, they call it inertia - the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, and a body in motion to stay in motion.

Richard's story was set in motion by his enemies after his death in battle 518 years ago, and it's still rolling along today.

Physicists don't really understand inertia, they've just named it, or so said Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of the last century.

I know how they feel. I don't understand why it's easier to start rumors than to squelch them, why it's easier to destroy a reputation than to rehabilitate it, but it is so.

And so I care about Richard, so long after the fact, because he is the poster boy for all those who are unjustly convicted, unjustly accused, or even unfairly maligned in public or in private.

Richard III reminds me to be careful about what I accept as true, even - or especially - when it comes from an authority.

The inertia affecting his reputation reminds me that there is a difference between what happened and what I read in the paper or saw on CNN, between what I know and what I think I know - and that it is damnably difficult to tell which is which, sometimes.

As the old saying goes: "It is not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it is what we do know that ain't so."

Is Michael Jackson guilty as charged? His fans don't know. Neither do I.

Presumption of innocence: It's hard. It's important.

Isabel Gibson is a management consultant and writer.

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