I’m going to use the Bill Cosby scandal to illustrate my point, but in truth the misuse of this expression had been irritating me for years, long before the accusations against Cosby came to light. The expression is, “A person is innocent until proven guilty.” You hear it all the time, not infrequently by Cosby’s defenders, and it makes me cringe every time.
First of all, the expression actually states that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. They even get this wrong at the beginning of Cops. And what the presumption of innocence means is that when a person stands accused of a crime, generally in a court of law, the burden of proving guilt is on the accuser, rather than the accused having to prove himself innocent.
Let’s take a look at the famous O.J. Simpson trial. It was the job of the prosecution to prove that Simpson had committed the two murders. They failed to accomplish this, at least in the eyes of the jury. Now, assuming that Simpson did indeed kill those two people (and you and I have no way of knowing for sure) there’s no way he can be considered innocent. He may not have been convicted, but he most certainly is guilty of the crime.
A year or so ago I heard an interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who stated that the three greatest stand-up comedians of all time are Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby. I recall this because they’re the same three that I would have chosen. Sometimes Cosby, who works clean and never presented a particularly hip persona, doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves, so it was nice to hear him get the recognition.
Not every one of Bill Cosby’s accusers is saying he raped them. Some have simply come forward with an account of how Cosby crudely attempted to seduce them, and was rejected. However, if even one of the rape allegations is true, Cosby is a criminal. Again and again women have said that while with Cosby they mysteriously passed out and woke up naked, often with Cosby having sex with them, or with Cosby not there but with the feeling that they had had sex.
If Cosby did in fact rape these women but never stands trial, because of statute of limitations loopholes and/or secret payoffs, it is legally wrong and morally reprehensible to describe him as “innocent,” as the people who still attend his performances often do. If he raped those women he is guilty, even if he never steps inside of a courtroom. As with O.J. Simpson, we can never know the truth with absolute certainty, but as thinking adults we can look at the evidence and form our own opinions. And many people, myself included, now believe it’s at least possible for someone to be both one of the greatest comics in history and a serial rapist.
One thing that you can definitely count on, however. You will never hear me defend Cosby, or any accused person, by claiming he is “innocent until proven guilty.” It is simply an automatic, go-to defense for people who have no other evidence to support their argument, and besides, it’s not what the concept means.