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.