web analytics
July 3, 2015 / 16 Tammuz, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Rush To Judgment

Helmreich-012513

This much we know: as soon as the story broke last month that a former teacher at a well-known Jewish educational institution stood accused of abusing students there decades ago, the teacher’s life changed forever. His employers saw it (he was immediately suspended from his current job), his friends, family and associates would soon learn of it, and anyone who searches the web could now forever find it. His fate was sealed.

What did it take for the newspapers to render such an ultimate and irreparable sentence? Check the articles that broke the story and you’ll find the startling answer: one accuser. That’s right – for the teacher, unlike a former principal also named in the article, a single claim was all it took to print his name, photograph and the repugnant details of the allegation. One paragraph even recounted the sordid tale as fact, without qualifications such as “the former student claimed.”

The “former student,” unlike the teacher he accused, remained anonymous.

This is not a defense of the teacher. Nor is it a denial of the accuser’s claim, or his sincerity. The teacher may be guilty, and if so it is an unspeakably horrible crime – as is any attempt to cover it up. And if he is guilty, his victim has a right to immediate and immeasurable redress.

But the point here is about something else: the standard of evidence used to support such a public charge, one that is as damning as any courtroom verdict – and far more so than most.

As any adolescent knows, criminal verdicts tend to require much more corroboration than this. The reasoning is almost as familiar: if we irretrievably deprive someone of his place in society, we had better get ironclad proof, beyond a reasonable doubt. It should take nothing less to destroy someone.

No similar standard has ever been applied to the press, however. One reason, perhaps, is that accusations in the media, unlike courtroom verdicts, are not final – they can be challenged in the same court of public opinion. So one source may often be good enough.

Except here. In the special case of sexual abuse of minors, the mere appearance of the charge will finish someone, tainting him forever. Would you hire or associate with an accused sex offender? Would you give him the benefit of the doubt? The revulsion evoked by the crime itself spreads to the mere allegation. Publication becomes the ultimate sentence.

That is not to say news stories should carry the same burden of proof as criminal conviction, which is very high. It is only to suggest that there should be some standard of evidence, rather than the lowest imaginable: a single anonymous accuser. Reputable newspapers used to take pains to corroborate such allegations with at least someone else’s similar claims, or independent evidence.

Not so for the teacher whose one accuser chose to remain anonymous. Yet his name and picture were splayed in prominent black and white, and subsequent reports lumped him together with the other educator whose numerous accusers included some who were named, making it seem as though many students had accused them both.

It may turn out that multiple eyewitnesses will step up and confirm the lone, anonymous accusation. But that would hardly change the fact that some newspapers stood ready to ruin him either way, with scandalously thin evidence at the time.

It isn’t always this easy. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have campaigned vigorously for the rights of accused sex offenders to a fair hearing, and they have taken their cause to the press as well.

But you won’t find those activist voices in the present drama. Nor did we hear them during the recent Nechemya Weberman trial, in which a chassidic man was convicted on one alleged victim’s testimony. In that case, the defense even showed she had reason to despise the accused (he had reportedly videotaped her and her paramour and showed it to her parents).

The Weberman case should have been a cause célèbre of liberal due process champions. The defendant was unappealing, having indisputably done at least some disgraceful things (not least among them counseling youngsters without a license and breaking their confidences). The district attorney was under pressure to convict sex offenders from the defendant’s community. And the evidence was thin. There was, in short, a high risk of a questionable verdict – precisely the danger that due-process champions most fear.

About the Author: Jeff Helmreich, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, is author of a forthcoming study titled “Reasonable Doubts and Doubtable Reasons: Where Jury Instructions Go Wrong.” This article originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in The Long Island Jewish World.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Rush To Judgment”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Be'er Sheba.
Netanyahu: Israel Faces Double Threat, From ISIS and Iran
Latest Indepth Stories
Zuckerman-070315

Respect & appreciation for our country is not only a civic value but an essential Jewish one as well

wedding cake

When words lose meaning, the world becomes an Orwellian dystopia; a veritable Tower of Babel

ISIS leads captured Egyptian Copts in death march.

Israel, like the non-radical Islamic world. will be happy see the ISIS beheaded for once.

Dr. Michael J. Salamon

Kids shouldn’t have “uninstructed” Internet access, better to train them how to use it responsibly

What if years from now, IS were to control substantial territory? What world havoc would that wreak?

Rambam writes the verse’s double term refers to 2 messiahs: first King David; 2nd the final Mashiach

The Gaza flotilla has been rightfully and legally blocked by Israel’s Navy, with greetings from Bibi

The president described the attack as “an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress…”

“The only [candidate] that’s going to give real support to Israel is me,” said the 69-year-old Trump.

And whereas at the outset the plan was that Iran would have to surrender most of its centrifuges, it will now be able to retain several thousand.

Now oil independent, US no longer needs its former strategic alliances with Gulf States-or Israel

In addition to the palace’s tremendous size it was home to the “hanging gardens,” which were counted among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Rather than asserting Jewish rights on Temple Mount or protecting Jewish lives Israel chooses soccer

Nothing in the NEW Paris Proposal differs much from what was offered by Olmert and rejected by Abbas

More Articles from Jeff Helmreich
Helmreich-012513

This much we know: as soon as the story broke last month that a former teacher at a well-known Jewish educational institution stood accused of abusing students there decades ago, the teacher’s life changed forever. His employers saw it (he was immediately suspended from his current job), his friends, family and associates would soon learn of it, and anyone who searches the web could now forever find it. His fate was sealed.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/rush-to-judgment/2013/01/23/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: