How about some caution in court of public opinion

Between the horrific shootings in Ohio and Texas and Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide, much of the news cycle and public debate has been caught up in the reaction. It is understandable. 

When innocent people lose their lives because of maniacal gun violence, policy proposals flow forth. When an individual accused of horrific sex crimes — inextricably linked to many famous and powerful people — suddenly dies while in federal custody, theories run amok.

However, public attention is a limited commodity. There are countless other stories which deserve consideration. For example, the ongoing Hong Kong protests or the worsening of the rivalry between India and Pakistan over Kashmir both foreshadow possible future violence on the world stage. Britain is Brexiting, while the “yield curve” — the difference between short term and long term interest rates — is inverting in the US. That means the markets believe a recession is more likely in the short term than the long term.

And in a story with Maine ties, former Sen. George Mitchell was named in one of the lawsuits flowing from the Epstein scandal. A woman who claims she was trafficked by Epstein and his alleged partner has filed a lawsuit stating that she was told “to go to” numerous notable individuals and, while underaged, offer them sex.

Sen. Mitchell denies he was involved with or aware of any such behavior. He says he never met the woman, and has not been charged with a crime or sued based on these allegations. 

The court of public opinion, given the evidence known today, should acquit him. In legal land, there are rules against “hearsay.” Just because someone says something doesn’t mean their statement is true. It is entirely possible that the accuser — Ms. Virginia Giuffre — was told that she should solicit Mitchell. Yet, it is also possible that the alleged directive was a scare tactic put forward by a human trafficker to dissuade a victim from contacting authorities under the false premise that powerful people were against her.

U.S. Senator George Mitchell gives a speech celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, during an event at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday April 10, 2018. (Brian Lawless/PA via AP)

Such is the challenge with accusations. The more heinous the allegation, the more skeptical we should be. That is particularly true when they arise in the political arena.

This does not mean Ms. Giuffre’s account of what happened is discarded or diminished. It just means that Sen. Mitchell should not be tarnished with scorn or derision. A reasonable, rational person can recognize that the world is a complicated place.

The cautious response to these allegations involving Mitchell provides a positive contrast to the chaos of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. He was accused of horrific actions. He denied them. No other substantial evidence existed. Nevertheless, rather than sympathizing with the accuser while maintaining the presumption of innocence for the accused, America largely broke into two partisan camps. Supporters of the now-Justice sought to undermine the credibility of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, while many of his opponents seemed to believe the accusations with little question.

It was a similar story in January when high school students were accused of mocking Native Americans during protests in Washington. Many in the media and online immediately reacted, declaring the students impetuous and racist. As more details came to light, what actually happened was anything but clear. Yet the students were smeared and will now forever have a digital footprint following them throughout their lives.

Public attention is a limited commodity. It is an old saying that everyone reads headlines but no one reads the corrections. With a fast-paced world and countless developments continually arising, the opportunity to think deeper about the news of the day — critically assessing the available information — is fleeting at best.

The court of public opinion is continually in session, but its guilty verdicts should be issued sparingly. Fortunately, Sen. Mitchell has seemingly been spared from its wrath. Hopefully, going forward, others will be as well. Until all the evidence comes in, everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.