Second Chance From The Court of Public Opinion

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We are generally forgiving as a society. We tend to give second chances to people who screw up, are remorseful and take steps to change their ways.

Whether convicted in a trial court or in a court of public opinion, a second chance can be valuable if the person given the mercy does the right thing with the chance. In some cases, though, the court of public opinion can be much harsher than a court of law, especially when a person is found not guilty in the courtroom despite what the public may think. Being booked, fingerprinted and having a mug shot on file with law-enforcement for a crime that you ultimately did not commit can be humiliating, as many people have the inherent bias and trust in law-enforcement that it always gets its man (or woman), so if you have fingerprints and mug shot, you must be guilty.

For many, the court of law can be a haven to clear the record legally, but the public opinion is still out there, and an acquittal doesn’t always carry with it justice from the community. Usually, if a person winds up in the police blotter of the local paper as a “suspect” or a “person of interest” for a crime, that person is almost automatically painted as guilty and is thought of as being hanged in a gallows.

Florida is a state that sometimes takes compassion to a new level, and this is also the case with a recent bill that was passed by the state legislature which would allow files of people found not guilty in a trial proceeding to have their records sealed from public view or scrutiny by media or by anyone conducting a background check. This goes for every case in which a not guilty verdict is passed down, no matter the circumstances surrounding the verdict.

Just imagine O.J. Simpson’s records being sealed because he was found not guilty in his highly publicized 1993 murder trial. Anyone in the media 20 years later who wanted to investigate the facts behind the murder, would find nothing in public record – the entire case would have disappeared.

Granted, this is in Florida and not California, but the idea is the same. If Gov. Rick Scott were to sign this bill into law – which passed unanimously – it would mean that someone like Casey Anthony or George Zimmerman would have no public record shown on a background check if they were to apply for jobs or seek some kind of security clearance, or even be around children.

One vocal opponent of the bill is Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who said she was concerned about crimes against children and sex crimes being sealed just because of a not guilty verdict. Sealing those records would hamper a prosecutor’s efforts to determine a pattern of behavior in a rape or child-abuse case, especially in those kinds of sensitive cases where witness testimony often decides the verdict and yet very few witnesses are willing to testify, much less press charges.

Florida criminals – those who actually are convicted of crimes in a court of law – are not part of this law; this is meant to protect the privacy of those who were found to have not committed a crime. It is a tricky subject to give blanket privacy to everyone who is acquitted, since history of run-ins with law enforcement can be strong evidence for recidivism and more aggressive sentencing and better odds of conviction. Civil liberties are at stake with this case, including an established tradition of a right to privacy. Guilt is basically the default verdict in the court of public opinion, and acquittal in that court is much harder to achieve than in a court of law.

Just ask O.J. Simpson, or Kobe Bryant. Or even George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, always revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance producer for USA Today, and a contributor at Technorati. She lives in Utah with her 2 kids and husband. Melissa Thompson can be reached via LinkedIn or Twitter @melthompson88. Please follow and friend her on either site.