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'Innocent until proven . . .'

  • Published
  • By Capt. Timothy Goines
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing area defense counsel

We've all seen the media lately - the news stories, the articles, the speeches and even a movie regarding sexual assault in the military. The recent awareness campaign has served to remind us all that sexual assault in the military should not be tolerated.
Let me be clear up front, no one is arguing that sexual assault, or any crime for that matter, should be tolerated in the military. To make that argument would be ludicrous.

However, with the recent campaign, there is another valuable message that is getting lost: an Airman accused of sexual assault, or any crime, is above all else "innocent until proven guilty."

That firmly rooted presumption is the foundation of our military justice system.

Of course, no one has stated outright that any Airman is presumed guilty (at least not in the articles that I've read), but the media focus has been on allegations of sexual assault, not proven cases. In other words, they do not focus on the number of "guilty" court verdicts (those allegations that have been tested and proven in a court of law), but rather the number of people who have claimed they were sexually assaulted or harassed, whether the allegation was taken to court or not.

These allegations have been used to make conclusions about military culture, which is a dangerous logic. By drawing broad conclusions unrelated to specific cases or facts, we are assuming the validity of all these allegations, and we are essentially presuming guilt without the benefit of a fair trial or even an investigation.

I will be the first to say that any allegation of sexual assault should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This should be done to ensure that justice prevails.

However, here is the key - no matter whether the allegation is proven true or false, as long as a thorough and impartial investigation is conducted, justice prevails.

Justice prevails if a panel of court members determines whether or not the government met its heavy burden beyond a reasonable doubt, as long as the trial was fair. The key is to conduct a deliberate process, evaluate the evidence, study motives, bias and inconsistencies. Then an impartial determination must be made. This ensures that justice prevails, no matter the result.

On the other hand, justice does not prevail if we rush to judgment or presume guilt.
Here's my central concern as your local area defense counsel: We risk losing sight of those first three words - "innocent until proven" to be left only with a conclusion - "guilty" - without first looking at the facts and circumstances of each case through the lens of a fair trial, free of prejudice. In the face of a serious allegation such as sexual assault, this is the last thing we should be doing, because emotion is not evidence.
Instead, we should focus on deferring judgment. Instead we should take care of all the Airmen involved and evaluate every case with an open mind. The last thing we want to encourage in the Air Force is an unconstitutional mentality of "guilty until proven innocent."

The office of the ADC is here to protect the rights of all Airmen suspected of an offense. All you have to do is ask for our assistance before talking to anyone about your case or your concerns. For free, confidential legal advice call 828-4455 or stop by Hangar 4.