Hall of Justice
The Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego. File photo

By Stefano L. Molea

As University of San Diego basketball coach Lamont Smith’s arrest makes its way through the headlines, a familiar tone seems to emerge: a subtle (or not so subtle) assumption that he is guilty of what he has been arrested for.

Whether it’s a coach, a professional athlete, actor, law enforcement officer, or politician, a high-profile arrest triggers a flurry of reports and news coverage that capitalize on the sensational. What we, as members of the public, do not always realize is that our collective minds are being influenced by the underlying tone that assumes guilt.

All of this serves to perpetuate a notion that is destructive to one of the most fundamental principles of our criminal justice system and social construct: that one is presumed to be innocent unless the accused pleads guilty or the prosecution can meet its burden and convince a jury that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Then there are the institutional responses to an arrest. In Smith’s case, I think USD’s statement and decision to place him on administrative leave was reasonably balanced considering the diverse concerns it must address, such as its image as a faith-based school, parent and student worries, loyalty to its employees and potential legal implications of its actions.

Stefano L. Molea

What I respect is that, thus far, USD’s position seems acknowledge that all the facts are not yet available and that an investigation is required. In other cases that have received media attention, the institutions have had a knee-jerk reaction motivated by maintaining an image without concern about giving the accused the benefit of the doubt.

We simply do not have the facts to know whether Smith is legally guilty of the accused crimes. In most media cases, the public receives a small percentage of the totality of the evidence through media reports. Even if the public had access to absolutely everything, they would not likely also be given the thick stack of instructions that juries would receive which dictate what can be considered, for what purpose, and how evidence should be evaluated.

Most importantly, juries are instructed about the presumption of innocence, and the prosecution’s burden of proving each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here is how I approach this problem as a criminal defense lawyer. When I participate in the process of jury selection, I often pose a simple question to the prospective jurors: when you walked into the court room and saw the defendant sitting at the defense table, did you think to yourself either 1) I wonder what he did; or 2) I wonder what he is being accused of.

The difference in these thoughts (it’s usually the former) is critical in highlighting the bias that the public develops against one accused of a crime. That bias, in my opinion, is built in part by media reports that do not utilize a neutral tone or language in reporting on these events.

I’m hoping for a shift in public opinion that takes into account the presumption of innocence, or at the very least, a more critical reading of media reports.

Stefano L. Molea is a San Diego criminal defense lawyer. He is a member of the board of directors for
the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association and other organizations dedicated to defending and
protecting the rights of those accused of or charged with a crime.