I love being an American. One of the things I love best is our Constitution, which was painstakingly constructed by our forefathers in order to identify, define and protect our inalienable rights as American citizens. The Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights states: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."
Inherent in that statement -- but never included in the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution -- is the full extent that the accused are "innocent until proven guilty."
"Innocent until proven guilty" is a phrase upon which the United States hangs its hat, particularly in relation to countries throughout the world whose governments can punish, kill or maim without ever informing the "accused" of his/her crime or giving him the opportunity to face his "accusers." The execution of these rights is not without problems; the United States justice system is clearly flawed, particularly as it relates to jury composition, inconsistent sentencing guidelines (crack vs. cocaine), a failure to prosecute "white-collar" crimes with the same zeal as crimes committed by your average "Joe Blow," and disproportionate incarceration rates for men and women of color in relation to whites who are convicted of the same crimes. Thus, the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" is more theoretical than practical, but it is still a principle upon which our justice system is based and an important ideal for which to strive.
What is compelling about this idea is that it disappears in the court of public opinion -- where people are thought to be guilty until proven innocent. It is amazing that a belief that many claim to hold near and dear goes out the window when it comes to high-profile cases, as is the case most recently with Michael Vick.
As a dog lover, I am horrified to think that Mr. Vick is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. I love dogs so much that I recently wept at a dinner when a friend of a friend stated that she had euthanized her gravely ill dog the day before. Needless to say, I haven't been invited back for dinner. But the thought of putting a dog to sleep is earth-shattering for me.
To think that Mr. Vick may have done or known about these horrible dogfighting practices is maddening. To hold up signs at his arraignment calling him a murderer is also maddening. Many of the same people that vigilantly champion the rights of animals sit idly by while the young boys of the Jena Six are being railroaded by the system. I'm into rights for animals and people, and even though Mr. Vick looks guilty as hell, I am reserving judgment until I am able to watch the case in its entirety on Court TV.
Now, people aren't jumping to conclusions based on nothing. Mr. Vick's prior bad behavior leads to this type of speculation and condemnation. Somehow, Vick missed the memo (Mayor Pat McCrory's and others) that being young, black and "thugged out" will get you noticed and more than likely arrested. Add criminal and crazy behavior to that, and it's pretty much a wrap.
Even though it is unfair to have to suffer, because some people in power insist on mapping their insecurities and stereotypes onto others, it is a part of life. Michael Vick is guilty of making poor decisions. He is guilty of failing to leave behind his "boys," while trying to become the "man" in the NFL. He is guilty of trusting "boys" to "man-up" and to help make his life better as opposed to worse, particularly after benefiting from his sponsorship. He is guilty of turning his dream into a nightmare, after turning what would have more than likely been a nightmare of a life a wonderful dream that most will not experience, nor can imagine. But, I am not certain that he is guilty of this crime. And I wish that all of us, including me, would try to remember that the beauty of living in this country is that we are all "innocent until proven guilty." When we stop believing and espousing that idea, the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay is what happens -- in actual courts, not just the court of public opinion.
As a cynic and a critic, it will be extremely hard to give Mr. Vick (or Ms. Lohan for that matter) the benefit of the doubt. But as an American, I will try to remember that they are "innocent until proven guilty" ... and hopefully you will too.
Nsenga K. Burton is a Charlotte-based writer, professor and a filmmaker.