Apr 23, 2009

The Phil Markoff Case and Pet Peeves

As you probably know, Phil Markoff, a seemingly squeaky-clean Boston University medical student, has been charged with murdering one masseuse he met through the Craigslist website, and robbing another.

The charges have given rise to examples of two of my pet peeves: 

Peeve # 1: Markoff's defense attorney, John Salsberg, is telling the media that "Markoff isn't guilty."  Just as prosecutors should never say that a defendant is guilty, defense lawyers have no business proclaiming their clients' innocence.  Unless Salsberg himself committed the crimes, he cannot possibly know whether Markoff is guilty.  Salsberg can say something along the lines of, "My client insists on his innocence."  Otherwise, he shouldn't talk as if he knows what he cannot possibly know.

Peeve # 2: Markoff's friends are griping that people are rushing to judgment instead of considering him innocent until proven guilty.  Of course criminal defendants are presumed innocent -- once inside the courtroom, when official proceedings can result in punishment.  But in the Court of Public Opinion, people have no power to pronounce guilt or punish suspects. Just as a parent doesn't need a jury to decide whether a child spilled a bottle of milk, individuals don't need a jury to tell them whether to believe that the information currently available suggests that Markoff committed a murder and a robbery.  A person's private belief that "Markoff did it" in no way violates the formal presumption of innocence.