Saturday, October 06, 2007
Misleading Headline of the Day
Assault Suspect Maintains Innocence —headline to a story in The Hoya by Andrew Dwulet and Michele Hong
You may have heard by now of the charge brought against Philip Anderton Cooney—of assaulting a fellow Georgetown University student after harrassing him with "faggot" remarks and then stalking him. It has been classified as a hate crime, which increases the possible penalties by half.
Mr. Cooney may have acquired a sense of invulnerability to the law from his father, Philip Sr. As chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality, Dad busied himself rewriting scientific reports on global warming despite having no known expertise in the area other than being a former oil lobbyist. By way of reward he left the government in 2005 for a job with ExxonMobil, which "could not say exactly when, or what his job would be."
But I digress. The headline from The Hoya states that Cooney "maintains his innocence." And the report from nbc4.com, a Washington DC affiliate, also leads with "Police say they've made a break in a recent hate crime but his lawyer says they have the wrong man."
What interested me was that neither the story in The Hoya nor the video account, which includes an interview with Cooney's attorney, supports the notion that Cooney claims to be innocent. In fact, I searched through all the news stories and could not find a single instance of such a claim.
Instead, his lawyer says that the police did a poor investigation, which is true—the victim was the one who ferreted out Cooney. And on video the attorney issues a stern warning to "remember the Duke lacrosse case." But the only parallel to the Duke lacrosse case is that both cases involve an accusation by a member of a minority against well-to-do white collegians. There the parallel ends. The Duke lacrosse players protested their innocence long and loud.
What Cooney did was enter a plea of "not guilty." That is his right, since it's the government's responsibility to prove him guilty. But how uninformed do journalists have to be to convert a not-guilty plea into a claim of innocence?
Pleas of "guilty" or "not guilty" have never had much to do with actual guilt or innocence. And these days the relationship is even more tenuous.
Just as a "not guilty" plea doesn't imply innocence, a "guilty" plea may not necessarily imply guilt. It may mean that the prosecutor has made you an offer through your public defender to reduce the charges if only you'll plead guilty. And since the only witness for your defense has developed Alzheimer's and the cops hate you anyway, you decide a year or two in the pen is better than risking a sentence of 20-to-life. As President Bush is fond of saying, "The government does not torture people." You made your decision to plead guilty quite voluntarily, didn't you?
Just remember: When arrested talk to no one and plead "not guilty" up to the last moment. A guilty plea is almost never reversible, as Senator Larry Craig found out Thursday when a Minnesota judge refused to allow him to reverse his guilty plea to a charge of disorderly conduct.
Because of the unfortunate media coverage, which has not been nearly so kind to Senator Craig as it has been to gay-basher Tooney, many now mistakenly believe that Senator Craig's constituents can be found in the Minnesota Airport men's room. Not so. He actually represents the good people of Idaho, who are putting on the bravest face possible. Craig will be inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame come October 13, and he intends to attend. But one Idaho Republican leader is urging the ceremony be postponed until "maybe in 10 or 15 years." I hope not. I want to be around for the fun.