Columns » Boomer with Attitude

What happened to 'presumed innocent'?

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We Americans give a lot of lip service to the notion that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Luckily, our court system — despite its many faults and periodic brazen injustices — still considers "innocent until proven guilty" the basis of its trials. But the rest of us? Our belief in presumed innocence usually flies out the window the minute we see headlines screaming that someone has been charged with a crime.

You'd probably have a hard time convincing Osvaldo Sombo that many people outside the court system believe in "innocent until proven guilty." He should know. The Butler High School student and football star, 17, was reviled by much of the city before many facts were known.

In case you somehow didn't hear, Sombo was arrested Aug. 11, and booked on two charges of rape and one charge of sexual battery. A young woman, who is not a student at Butler, said she and Sombo had intercourse against her will and that she repeatedly asked him to stop, to no avail.

In Sombo's case, the court system respected his presumed innocence — facts were gathered, and charges were eventually dropped. Unfortunately, CMS isn't under legal obligation to presume their students are innocent, so they went to work on the kid. As for the general public, a realm where presumption of innocence is more rumor than reality, it's fair to say that between the time most Charlotteans heard of his arrest and the DA's decision to drop charges, Sombo was widely assumed to be as guilty as sin.

That's how it works these days. Once serious allegations are made public, just about everyone jumps on the bandwagon and demands to know why the alleged perpetrator is out on bond, or hasn't been fired, or is still in school, or why this scum is allowed to breathe the same air as the rest of us saints. Later, when charges are dropped, most hardly notice because they're busy getting hyped up about a new, fresher crime story, e.g., the police chief's daughter and the junkie.

Most of us heard of Osvaldo Sombo's case because of the subsequent communication screw-ups by the court system and CMS. The resulting delays led to wailing and the gnashing of teeth in the community because — horror of horrors — they allowed the (supposedly presumed innocent) Sombo to play in a Butler football game.

I forgot to mention: If a CMS student athlete is arrested, he or she can't play again until the case is settled, a policy that is, I feel, transparently unfair. I would expect CMS to bar a student athlete from representing a school after he or she was convicted in court, but enacting a ban before a trial has been held is bureaucratic overkill, and patently unjust. And that's not half of it. Following CMS policy, administrators yanked Sombo out of Butler and transferred him to Bank Street Alternative School, the county's dumping ground for "problem students," where he was to stay until the matter was settled.

Well, the matter is settled now, charges against Sombo were dropped for lack of evidence (the DA says they found that intercourse had been consensual), the kid has been returned to Butler and is back on the football team.

In the meantime, though, Osvaldo Sombo was treated as if his guilt was a foregone conclusion — it makes for such a juicy TV news story, don't you know? A wave of venom rolled through the city; radio callers were practically licking their chops at the prospect of Sombo being imprisoned for life; and the daily paper had to close the online comments section for their story about the alleged rape, due to the number virulent, racist remarks.

The young woman still insists that her intercourse with Sombo was not consensual, and there's talk that the young man was exonerated because he's a football star. If anyone has evidence of either of those allegations, they should take it to the police and let them investigate. Both Sombo and his accuser — all students and students' families, in fact — deserve a system in which justice being served is paramount ... and more important than CMS' showboating and "get tough" policies toward people who are innocent until proven guilty.

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