Public opinion is not a court of law

I have been intrigued by some of the fanatical responses offered in response to the acquittal of a former priest in a recent child molestation trial.

The angry mob scene made me think I was watching footage shot in the Middle East.

The enraged outcry and the inferences of unfairness disturb me because, in this kind of case, trial by public opinion is often assumed to have more to do with justice than the jury system itself - a system admired and respected throughout the world.

In our exploding information age, we have the opportunity to download, listen to, read, and view much more information than we could possibly begin to process with any reasonable degree of balance or discernment.

Urban legends are circulated, forwarded via e-mail, and quoted by millions of Internet users. Commentary and interpretation are presented as actual news on talk shows, where the lines between conjecture, opinion, and reliable intelligence are as blurry as the reports we all enjoyed by Saddam Hussein's spin-master, Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, during the war in Iraq.

Scott Peterson, arrested in California and charged with the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, has been tried and convicted in the press numerous times. There was grave concern regarding the potential for angry mob behavior at his arraignment.

Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? I was hailed as a hero by African-American co-workers at my school when I expressed acceptance of the jury's verdict. Apart from me, the faculty's reaction was 100 percent color-coded. I insisted that my feeling had nothing to do with race relations, and everything to do with believing in America.

We place these decisions in the hands of a jury because it's dangerous to assume that we know better. The public hasn't been made privy to all the evidence presented by both sides. Nor have we had the opportunity to hear all of the witnesses.

None of us favors lynching, vigilantism, trial without jury, or conviction without trial. We believe in the right to a defense; we celebrate the assumption of innocence until proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; we understand these essential rights to be ironclad. Yet we cavalierly make peremptory judgments, as if the convictions we hold so dear should be suspended in response to our outrage.

The fact is, and I know we don't like to admit this, we simply do not know half of what we claim to understand just because we have an opinion. Words are cheap and gossip is the most potent and evil weapon ignorant people have at their disposal. If we are willing to try and convict an individual who has been found innocent in a court of law, then that makes those of us who take that leap little more than arrogant fools.

Sure, the justice system makes mistakes, and it is certainly incumbent upon us as a society to do our best to eliminate the miscarriages that undoubtedly happen. But - and this is important - consider the alternative: an erosion of the kind of liberties and rights that have made and continue to make this nation great.

It is important to remember that the phrase "consent of the governed" is key to our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. All that we have, all that so many have died for, all that defines us, is subject to the day-by-day consent of individual people - including you and me.

That consent must be actively and consciously promoted and defended; indeed, our practical interest in freedom is revealed in the actions that we take. Trial by public opinion, in my judgment, begins to compromise the very foundation of this 227-years-and-counting experiment in liberty. And that's a steep price to pay for the temporary indulgence of emotion and the thrill of playing judge and jury.

Derek Maul writes for Tampa Bay area newspapers.

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