“Innocent until proven guilty” is the standard for criminal justice proceedings according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was first codified by the Romans; the phrase in its modern form was coined by Sir William Garrow, arguably the first modern defense attorney. It’s a principle of Islamic law and is a pillar of criminal justice all around the world. It is also the first line of defense for people who reject accusations against someone. Unfortunately, it is also frequently misused.
This isn’t even just that we as individuals are not bound to the same legal standard as juries. We all make our own minds up about things all the time, and our standards of evidence vary depending on the circumstances. (This is even true in court cases, where the civil standard is “preponderance of evidence,” not “reasonable doubt.”) Can I prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my son and not my daughter made the mess in his room? I cannot; it’s actually possible that she did it on one of the occasions when he failed to close his door. I’m merely looking at a pattern of mess, and they make messes differently.
What a lot of people seem to mean is that the accused haven’t been found guilty by a court of law. (Though I have a friend who still believes Bill Cosby is innocent, so that’s clearly not a universal standard!) Unfortunately, given issues with the statute of limitations, this will in many cases never happen. In California, for example, the statute of limitations for “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” is three years. (I am not a lawyer, and the rules changes made after California largely abolished statutes of limitations confuse me. But still.) In Connecticut, almost all sex crimes have a statute of limitations of five years. If your rape wasn’t a Class A felony, that’s it. Since it can take a very long time for people to process assaults and come forward, in many cases the statute of limitations prevents prosecution.
It also assumes justice in prosecution. It doesn’t take much awareness of the system to note that rape prosecutions happen at a lower rate than literally every other crime. There are some jurisdictions where grand juries are known to reject most rape cases, giving lie to the idea that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich. Maybe that’s true, but not if the ham sandwich is charged with rape. Clearly, “there were no prosecutions” does not prove an absence of rape.
Does that mean we should assume guilt? It depends on what you mean by “assume.” Obviously, each case should be judged on its merits. Kevin Spacey didn’t make things look better for himself by his little “Let Me Be Frank” video. (And his case is going to trial.) Many men’s defenses have basically been “she really wanted it.” Which even ignoring power imbalances—which should not be ignored—has been used as a defense even in cases where victims were left battered, were unconscious, or were children. Since we know that false accusations are uncommon in rape cases, it strikes me that we should in such cases put more weight on the side of the victims.
This idea gets a lot of pushback. But again, the facts are what they are. Very seldom are victims shown to be lying. Many of the “false accusation” statistics you’ll see count things like “the police declined to prosecute,” which we have clear evidence does not reflect on the validity of the case in the way that it should. “It’s hard to get a conviction” will prevent the police from filing charges, although it arguably shouldn’t, and that will make certain people say the victim is lying.
Or, Gods help us, that they’re coming forward for the publicity. If the accusations are anonymous, they’re untrustworthy because they’re anonymous accusations. If the accusations are public, they’re untrustworthy because the victims are trying to get publicity. Never mind that about the only accusers whose names I can generally remember are women who testified against men’s Supreme Court nominations. Never mind, indeed, that those women received shame and death threats while the men in both cases were confirmed to the Supreme Court. Shame, disbelief, and death threats are the reward for coming forward with your accusations.
So what does all this mean for you, Joe Random? It means you believe what you choose to believe. But unless you’re sitting on Louis CK’s hypothetical jury, you don’t have any kind of obligation to believe his innocence. (Especially not in a case where someone just says they’re innocent, with no other factual support; a person I know online said that, for people in the UK of a certain generation, “Mandy Rice-Davies applies” is a common response to that. When told that the person with whom she’d allegedly had an affair denied it, her only response was, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”) What you have as a member of society is an obligation to weigh the evidence to the best of your ability.
This society is an extremely difficult one for victims of assault and harassment. It took a movie for the military to stop requiring victims to report rapes to their superiors even in cases where their rapist was their superior. Women who are raped in alleys see their rapists get minor sentences because the judges are concerned about ruining the rapist’s future. People who commit truly horrific crimes get slapped on the wrist because “they probably won’t do it again.” And I’m supposed to be worried that someone will falsely accuse my son of rape when he’s older despite the statistics that indicate he’s more likely by far to be raped. Which doesn’t come up as a concern nearly as often.
Innocent until proven guilty? In a court of law, assuredly. And who knows, maybe the Spacey jury will come back with a verdict of Not Guilty and it won’t be a horrific miscarriage of justice. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I watched The Ref this year. In cases like this, you are deciding who you believe to be lying—the person accused of a crime or the person claiming to be a victim of one. Are victims lying until proven innocent?