Sunday February 21, 2016

Charlie Angus, Jian Ghomeshi and the presumption of innocence - Michael's essay

Jian Ghomeshi and his lawyer Marie Henein (left) leave court in Toronto following closing arguments in his sexual assault trial on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Jian Ghomeshi and his lawyer Marie Henein (left) leave court in Toronto following closing arguments in his sexual assault trial on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

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In August, 1970, Charles Manson was on trial in Los Angeles, charged with masterminding the slaughter of seven people including the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant at the time, and Abigail Folger, heir to the coffee fortune. It was a horrific crime. Members of the so-called Manson family butchered the victims inside a Beverly Hills mansion. The accused admitted they were under the thrall of "Charlie", as they called him.

While the trial was going on, President Richard Nixon was scheduled to speak to a law enforcement conference in Denver. He decided to hold an impromptu press conference. He told reporters, "The press tends to glorify and make heroes out of those who engage in criminal activities." He paused, then referring to the Manson trial said, "Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason." Back in Los Angeles, Manson's lawyers immediately called for a mistrial. The trial judge dismissed their application, but was alarmed at Nixon's remarks.

On February 10, as the sexual assault trial of former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi neared its close, NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus posted a statement on his Facebook page. In his posting, Mr. Angus described Ghomeshi as a predator. He made the very valid point, which I think needed to be underscored, that Ghomeshi was the person on trial, not the women who testified against him. He painted a picture of Ghomeshi's lawyer as the kind of legal counsel "known for their ability to take sexual assault witnesses apart." He ended his rant with this: "Nobody close to Jian even pretends he is innocent and somehow this isn't an issue - the women are."

Charlie Angus is an exemplary MP, and has been since he was elected as member for Timmins and James Bay in 2004. He is the author of five books and has been commended by media as one of the best MPs on The Hill. He has also taken up the cause of Aboriginal  people in a vigorous and intelligent way. But what he said about Ghomeshi's presumed guilt chills me.

The greatest attribute of our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. It is called the Golden Thread, and it means that any person charged with a crime is innocent in the eyes of the law until convicted by a court. Whether you are Charles Manson or Jian Ghomeshi, you are legally innocent despite what a politician might say. Cut that Golden Thread or diminish the concept of presumed innocence and the entire criminal justice system is shaken. In the Ghomeshi trial, there are two courts at play. The court of public opinion has issued its verdict. It now falls to the judge in the real court to decide guilt or innocence.

I'm not for a moment comparing Charlie Angus to Richard Nixon. But his impulse to impute guilt before a conviction I find troubling, especially, coming as it does, from a respected Member of Parliament.

Justice William Horkins will hand down his decision on March 24th.