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What happened to the presumption of innocence before trial?

The Jan. 28 opinion by The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board (“Judge abused his discretion on bail”) does a disservice to this fine paper. Not only is it premised on factual errors, it also misunderstands two basic, related principles: the presumption of innocence and the presumption of release before trial.

The opinion asks: “How can a man who has been charged with shooting another man multiple times in cold blood not be considered a danger to the community in which we all live?” The answer: Accusations are not the same as proof and an accused man is innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. Because of this, a defendant is entitled to release before trial unless the prosecution shows by clear and convincing evidence that he is a present danger to the community.

Relying heavily on the state’s motion to revoke bail, the opinion asserts there is “overwhelming evidence” to revoke bail. However, the opinion failed to review the transcript of the actual hearing before Judge Michael Studdard. This transcript reveals that the eyewitness’ photo identification is contested, that the 48-year-old Mr. West’s prior record consists only of a 15-year-old nonviolent conviction, that Mr. West himself had steady employment and strong in-court community support and that he voluntarily surrendered after retaining counsel. More important, the transcript reveals that Mr. West’s attorney was able to present to the court his own experience of having murder-accused clients successfully undergo pretrial home 24/7 detention without engaging in criminal conduct and then show up for court to face justice.

When the opinion laments that “we know of no other defendant charged with first-degree murder released to home detention in Baltimore,” it is clear that more research needs to be done. In fact, research by the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Pretrial Justice Clinic shows that murder defendants have been given money bails at the initial bail hearing as recently as 2016. Vitally, in those cases, it turned out that the initial charges of murder did not stick. In one case, the charges were dropped to manslaughter and the defendant was given probation. In another, the defendant was acquitted.

This experience shows that the presumption of innocence exists for a reason. In a city where rates of nolle prosequi (dropping charges) exceed 50 percent, The Editorial Advisory Board should know better than to presume the guilt of a criminal defendant based solely on the allegations of a prosecutor. And it should similarly know better than to presume that pretrial detention is more appropriate than pretrial release.

 

Nikki Thompson, a senior policy advocate at the Job Opportunities Task Force, contributed this letter on behalf of the Coalition for a Safe and Just Maryland.