Saturday, July 07, 2007

Suspicion, Presumption of Innocence, and Michael Vick

Michael Vick was involved in a seemingly legitimate business breeding pit bulls. During this time, an illegal dog fighting operation involving pit bulls appeared to be occurring at a property Vick owned (in fact, 17 dead pit bull bodies have been dug up on the property; there is fairly good evidence that serial animal torture was occurring). For five years, dog fighting activities seem to have been going on at a property Vick owned. Is that evidence? No, and apparently the Feds don’t have enough evidence to indict. But does that make it reasonable to be suspicious that Vick was in fact involved in an illegal dog fighting ring? I think so.

There’s now pretty strong evidence that dog fighting was taking place on the property. Hopefully lack of evidence tying Vick to the operation of animal torture means he really wasn’t involved. Given that the Feds say dog fighting has been occurring there since 2002 (and during part of this time Vick owned a dog breeding business), I think it’s reasonable to believe Vick at least knew what was going on. If they have no evidence, that means there’s not enough to prosecute Vick in the legal system. Does it mean that reasonable people must put aside any suspicion of Vick? No. Enough has happened, I think, that it is reasonable to suspect Vick was involved in a massive dog fighting operation on a property he owns.

In the American legal system, there is a right to presumption of innocence and the burden of proof is on the prosecution to find evidence for guilt. In America, we prosecute criminals based on evidence, not suspicion. That presumption of innocence is an absolutely necessary part of a fair trial; the American legal system is supposed to make it difficult to prosecute criminals, so that innocent people are not prosecuted or convicted. It also means a trial does not exonerate: at the end of a trial, a defendant is found “guilty” or “not guilty.” A “not guilty” verdict is not an “innocent” verdict: it simply means the prosecution did not provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict. This may be because the defendant was innocent; it may be because there was reasonable doubt about the evidence. Why is this relevant when discussing Vick, who it appears will not be a defendant on trial? Because prosecutors must consider presumption of innocence and burden of proof before they bring charges: one reason that the majority of trials result in guilty verdicts is because prosecutors are unlikely to go to trial on a case lacking evidence (as is my understanding from watching Law & Order on TNT all day, har har). Prosecutors cannot go to trial on suspicion, no matter how much they think a person may have committed a crime; prosecutors should only go to trial with evidence that a person has committed a crime.

And once again, the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof for the prosecution is a very good thing.

Of course, presumption of innocence is a right of a defendant and a requirement of a judge and jury in a trial; everybody else can think what they wish.

But here’s another thing about it: presumption of innocence is not reasonable.

Using the faculty of reason, we are supposed to look at evidence empirically. Using reason, we are better off with no assumptions: we look at the data with as few assumptions or biases as possible, and use our reason to determine what we believe to be true. Presumption of innocence subverts that: presumption of innocence tells jury members to assume innocence, and only return a guilty verdict if evidence is provided beyond a reasonable doubt to prove that the defendant is guilty. That's a good thing for the legal system, and it protects ALL of us. But it's not the way reasonable people look at reality. (Addendum: when I call the presumption of innocence irrational, I merely mean that using reason, I would be open to all possibilities. Using the presumption of innocence, I am assuming only one possibility and requiring you to convince me thoroughly of another possibility. It does not mean I think the legal system is flawed, but as I've said, that this presumption of innocence is an absolutely necessary part of a fair trial).

So what do we do with our faculty of reason? If Vick is never prosecuted, it may be because he was innocent and not involved in animal torture. However, it could also mean he was involved in animal torture, but there was not enough evidence to link his involvement. Right now, there is very strong evidence suggesting dog fighting activities occurred on Vick’s property. If these allegations are true, it is a reasonable to suspect Vick knew that a dog fighting operation run by a relative was occurring for five years on a property he owned.

What does this suspicion mean? It does not mean assuming guilt. It does not mean Vick should be indicted, prosecuted, or convicted. It simply means that reasonable people are still allowed to suspect Vick of involvement in dog fighting. If there is no evidence to prosecute Vick, then prosecutors should not file charges against him, and Vick gets to go on with his life. Reasonable people can also believe this means that Vick really was not involved in the dog fighting operation that appears to have been run on his property. But enough information has come out that a reasonable person can accept the POSSIBILITY that Vick indeed either knew of the activities or was involved.

That’s what suspicion means: that there is the POSSIBILITY that a person was involved in a crime. You don’t convict on possibility: you convict on evidence. But reasonable recognition of the possibility means we need not assume innocence, either.

And we're still left with the strong evidence that dog fighting (which is animal torture) was perpetrated by somebody on Vick's property. As an animal rights activist, I'm still going to follow this case to understand if the allegations are true, and how such a case is dealt with.

(If this post seems disjointed, it's because I'm trying to work out my honest thoughts on the case at the moment. I'm trying to give words to these thoughts to make sense of them for myself. Because I still have suspicions about Vick. I have never expressed an assumption of Vick's guilt on this blog. I have merely stated suspicions, and suggested that suspicion means recognizing the POSSIBILITY of guilt. I'm writing about this now because lack of indictment has not forced suspicion from my mind, and I'm trying to understand why that is, and if that is reasonable.).

ADDENDUM: Here's another way to explain this: the presumption of innocence and prosecution's burden of proof within the legal system allows for doubts and suspicions outside the legal system. Because we know of the legal system's presumption of innocence and prosecution's burden of proof, we know that lack of indictment or conviction does not necessarily mean innocence, but merely lack of evidence. This means I maintain my doubts and suspicions despite lack of indictment or conviction. Once again, I'm not challenging the legal system's presumption of innocence and prosecution's burden of proof: it's a very good thing, and an absolutely necessary part of a fair trial. I'm just trying to make sense of why lack of indictment hasn't assuaged any suspicions I have.


  1. Anonymous11:30 AM

    PV what truly hinders your belief that Vick is innocent?

  2. Logic. According to ESPN radio this morning, Vick himself paid for the construction of the buildings on the property. The federal government is accusing SOMEBODY of organizing dog fighting on this property over a five year period. During this time, Vick was involved in a seemingly legitimate business raising pit bulls.

    Is any of this direct evidence that Vick was involved, or even knew about, the alleged dog fighting on his property? No, and if that is all there is, obviously the Feds are right not to indict Vick.

    But are you telling me I'm out of line for believing it is POSSIBLE that Vick did know about it, or may have been involved?

    It's a little early to start celebrating the innocence of Michael Vick, two days after it was revealed that 17 dead dogs have been found buried on a property he owned and constructed.

  3. Anonymous2:53 PM

    You are claiming 17 dead dogs buried on the property as evidence? You know nothing about dogs, dogs die, for all kinds of reasons. Parvo, tainted pet food, cancer, etc... Dead dogs is not a reasonable justication for an assumption of dog fighting. Go ask your local animal shelter how many dogs they dispose of every week due to illness.

    At some point you are going to have to come to grips with the fact that the media is racist and they led you astray.

  4. Jay Goober,
    As I said over at TSF (and I would have liked to say at your blog), I agree with you that much reaction to this story has been disgustingly racist.

    Are the 17 dead dogs alone evidence that a dog fighting ring occurred on the property? No. But the reason they went looking for the dead bodies was because somebody tipped them to their existence, suggesting somebody with actual knowledge is informing the investigators.

    I suspect forensic analysis of the bodies will determine how the animals actually died--then we'll know better.

    The dead dogs, of course, are not the only reason I believe dog fighting occurred (regardless of who knew or was involved): there is other evidence suggesting it, it appears that the investigators have a reliable informant, and the federal investigators have clearly made those allegations in court documents (I'll write about this later). It is not unreasonable to believe that dog fighting did occur. As I've said, I suspect Vick at least knew about that, but if there is no evidence to prove it, then of course he should not (and currently appears will not) be prosecuted. But whether dog fighting activities were organized by somebody on the property? I'm much more confident in that suspicion.

  5. Anonymous4:43 PM

    There is smoke, but is there fire?

    I'm holding judgment until more facts come out.

    One unfortunate element of discussion in this debate of "is he innocent or guilty?" is the portrayal of the media as a omnipotent force. Yes, the media are powerful shapers of shared beliefs, but the consumers of media are not sheep.

    A person can't claim at one moment that the media are biased and change everyone's opinion, and then the next moment claim that they are immune to such power.

    yes, the media is largely racist and can lead people astray. But, to say that anyone who disagrees with a particular view has been led astray is too simplistic.

    Also, on the irony front...

    I read conservative blogs to stay on top of emerging talking points, and their portrayal of the media are eerily familiar.


  6. We also don't know that investigators have not already performed forensic examination of the bodies. The court documents allege the dogs were killed, and there are details on how dogs were killed--it's possible the forensic examination on the first seven bodies was already completed, and led to the specific allegations.

    I'm also continuing to follow the story for more information.

  7. Anonymous11:31 AM

    17 dead dogs on a property IS reason for suspicion. It IS NOT rascist to presume such. I have had dogs all my life and knew people who bred dogs most of their adult lives. I have NEVER seen or heard of anything on this level that was legitimate. Everyone of you who chooses to live vicariously through sport celebrities will jump to their defense because you in fact are defending your own inappropriate behaviour. It sickens me to see offenses swept under the rug due to a fear of facing your own demons; alcoholism, drug abuse, spousal abuse and violent crimes and behaviour. This is why we spend more to protect an elite few than we do to protect our own children in their schools and neighborhoods. If it is racist to measure people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin than i am racist. Steve Howe, Carruthers, Phillips, Litlle, Tony the Tiger, Benoit, etc...all tragic all preventable. Screw the slap on the wrist, how about justice for ALL.

  8. Anonymous11:27 PM

    Just because Vick is a white guy doesn't make the media racist for focusing on a famous person suspected of participating in the torture of many animals that had no choice in their terrible fates. Why are white people always crying racism whenever someone points out the barbaric evil they perpetrate on the world. There should not exist the assumption that public interest is held soley or even uniquly on racial perception. That assumption is racist. Maybe "whitey" would be happy if we ignored this issue because Vick is white and we wouldn't want to offend white people by pointing out that a white person did something bad. I didn't take interest in this story because of the color of an animal torturer's skin. The media hasn't made this a top story because of the racial or cultural implications inspired by the perpetrator. The interest and hype do not exist because Vick is white or black. They exist because someone who should be a role model is suspected of being a serial animal torturer.
    I know he's black. I was making a point.