Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in law school at the University of Illinois, I had a fairly well known professor for first year criminal law and procedure, and again for advanced criminal procedure third year. Prof. Wayne LaFave was the master of the pithy observation, the witty, insightful comment that distilled a tremendous amount of knowledge into very few words. Once a first year criminal law student used the phrase “legal technicality,” to which Prof. LaFave said something like: Ah. There’s that term again, “legal technicality.” You know what a legal technicality is? It’s somebody *else’s* constitutional rights.
In any event, another of Prof. LaFave’s pithy observations was this: In a criminal case, a jury never finds the defendant innocent. A jury may find the defendant not guilty, but not guilty isn’t the same thing. “Not guilty” means the state failed to meet its burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, a jury may believe the defendant probably is guilty, but if some doubt remains, the jury is obligated to acquit.
So, an acquittal in a criminal case does not mean the defendant is innocent. What it really means is, we’ll never know for sure.
That pithy observation, that “not guilty” ≠ “innocent,” seems to resurface in the world of sports entirely too often. Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, I faced the awful dilemma of rooting for the disdainful Green Bay Packers, whom, as a Bears fan, I’m duty-bound to hate, or the Ben Roethlisberger-led Pittsburg Steelers. Roethlisberger, you will recall, had been accused of sexually assaulting a twenty year old student in Milledgeville, Georgia – and it was the second time Roethlisberger had been accused of such a crime; he was sued in Las Vegas in 2009 for allegedly forcing a casino worker to have sex against her will. The civil suit was settled in 2012 pursuant to a confidential settlement agreement, the terms of which are unknown.
In April 2010, the District Attorney in Georgia dropped the rape charge against Roethlisberger, citing a lack of evidence. But like a not guilty verdict, the decision not to prosecute doesn’t necessarily prove that the crime didn’t occur.
And then there’s the case of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the greatest ever at his position, who will play what might be his final game in this afternoon’s Super Bowl. In January 2000, Lewis and several friends were involved in a fatal altercation at an Atlanta nightclub, resulting in criminal charges:
The brawl in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000, left two young men from Akron, Ohio, dead from stab wounds. Lewis and two acquaintances were charged with murder, but the charge against Lewis was reduced to a less serious one in a plea deal, and his co-defendants were acquitted.
The trial in Fulton County did not go well for prosecutors. Some outside experts said at the time that the prosecution was sloppy and the charges against Lewis, [and co-defendants Joseph] Sweeting and [Reginald] Oakley had been rushed. Others noted that witnesses had changed their stories.
Two weeks into the trial, prosecutors agreed to drop the murder charges against Lewis if he would plead guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice and testify against Sweeting and Oakley, who had criminal records that included convictions for theft, burglary and resisting arrest. The obstruction-of-justice charge was related to Lewis’ telling those who left in the limo after the fight that they should keep quiet about the incident.
Lewis testified that he tried to stop the fight and that Sweeting and Oakley bought knives the day before they ended up at the nightclub. …
After less than six hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Sweeting and Oakley …. Lewis had a year of probation for the misdemeanor charge and was fined $250,000 by the National Football League for violating its conduct policy.
Again, though, like an acquittal, a plea deal that results in a reduced charge is not a vindication. I’m certainly not saying Ray Lewis is guilty of murder; I’m saying we will never really know what happened in that nightclub thirteen years ago – other than that two young men died and no one was punished for their deaths.
And, of course, there’s the overriding, unavoidable concern that arises in cases like Roethlisberger’s and Lewis’: We all know that athletes play by a different set of rules in America. We know that they’re given special treatment. We know that police, prosecutors, judges and juries will come down like the hand of God on a poor, unknown nobody when there’s any evidence to suggest the poor schlub might be guilty; that jurors, in particular, will indulge police and prosecutors at every turn, and that most of the time, whether they’ll admit it or not, they tend to think that if the guy was arrested, he must be guilty.
Until a celebrity – especially an athlete – is arrested and charged with a crime. Then, suddenly everyone associated with the criminal justice system becomes Perry Mason. Everybody associated with the criminal justice system becomes an expert in constitutional law, doubting witnesses, investigators, the police, scrupulously adhering to the presumption of innocence, engaging in the kind of healthy skepticism they’re supposed to engage in in every case – but to a fault, to the point where the state can’t get a fair trial, where the victims are essentially ignored, and the defendant gets genuflected to like he’s the Bishop of Rome.
Just ask the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.
So, even in cases like Ray Lewis’, it’s only natural that questions remain.
Which is why, odd as it may sound, I find it much easier to watch Michael Vick play football than Ray Lewis or Ben Roethlisberger. Not because Vick brutalized animals rather than humans; I am a hopeless dog lover and I cannot abide by the slightest cruelty to them. But unlike the Lewis and Roethlisberger cases, in Vick’s case we know the criminal justice system worked: Vick was charged with serious crimes; he was convicted; and he served eighteen months of a twenty-three month sentence in Leavenworth, Kansas. You can argue with the length of the sentence, but as the Humane Society says on its website:
He served his time in prison, he admitted his wrongdoing, and his regret, and he determined to make amends. His work in reaching out to important audiences now buttresses that of the leading anti-dogfighting group in the nation in its broad efforts to attack the problem.
With Michael Vick, there’s no lingering doubt about him or his crime – or the fact that he served the time he was given. We don’t have to wonder whether he actually did it but was excused because he’s in that special class of humans who play by a different set of rules.
Which is more than you can say for many athletes who are accused of committing serious crimes.