Is Presumption Of Innocence Dead In Infamous Cases?


Jurors seated this month to judge the fate of ex-Enron Chairman Ken Lay and ex-CEO Jeff Skilling must presume the men are wrongfully accused by the government, says the Houston Chronicle. “As a practical matter, we all do have opinions of whether someone famous has done something wrong or not,” University of Houston Law Center professor Robert Schuwerk said. “But presumption of innocence has nothing to do with what goes on outside the courtroom.” Lawyers for defendants Lay and Skilling are concerned that Jan. 30, when 100 potential jurors are seated in a federal courtroom, the presumption of innocence might not be there with them. Several outside observers share this worry. The two former top Enron executives are accused of a conspiracy and fraud in the company’s fall. They have been the subject of massive publicity. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake and Enron Task Force prosecutors are confident an unbiased jury can be sworn in. The judge says it can be done in one day.

Steve Sheppard, a University of Arkansas School of Law professor, believes that pre-trial media coverage makes finding open-minded jurors increasingly difficult. ”One of the most fundamental problems is that though the law demands the presumption of innocence, the culture generally presumes” otherwise, he said. The presumption of innocence is not written in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial to encompass the idea. It was in 1895, in an Indiana case in which a bank officer and others faced 50 charges of fraud and other crimes, that the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally established the requirement. Houston defense attorney Joel Androphy says the phrase “presumption of innocence” has “zero value” these days. “People hear the term, but when they come into the courtroom, they think the government would not go through this if there weren’t something there,” he said. He added: “The terminology may have been in play before we had the media we have today, before we had Fox News ripping at people, before the insatiable appetite for court news.”


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