Until Proven Guilty

By David

Three months after Reginald Woolmington married 17 year old Violet Woolmington, she left him and went home to live with her mother. Reginald was not best pleased. He cycled to his mother-in-law’s house and shot and killed his young bride. At the trial Reginald claimed he did not intend to kill Violet. He planned to scare her by threatening to kill himself. Accidentally the gun went off shooting Violet through the heart. The trial judge ruled that the case was so strong against Reginald that the onus was on him to show that the shooting was accidental. The jury agreed. On February 14 1935 Reginald was convicted and sentenced to hang. Reginald, however, was not done. He appealed the case to the House of Lords and he won. In articulating the ruling, Viscount Sankey made his famous “Golden Thread” speech:

    “Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defense of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception.”

Reginald’s conviction was overturned and he was acquitted; the first beneficiary of the “Golden Thread” that was to become known as “innocent until proven guilty”.

Today, many modern democracies include the right in their legal codes and constitutions. Although the Constitution of the United States does not cite it explicitly, the presumption of innocence is widely held to follow from the 5th, 6th and 14th amendments. In Canada, section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

In France, article 9 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, says “Everyone is supposed innocent until having been declared guilty.” And if all that is not enough, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.

Given all this history and universal acceptance, why on earth did Chuck Wielgus, Executive Director of USA Swimming say the following?

    “Within the culture of swimming, if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, we want to catch you and throw you out of the sport. In other sports, it’s about excuses and justifications and being innocent until you’re proven guilty.”

I never thought I’d see the day when a fundamental human right was so scorned by a public official. Surely Wielgus is not supporting the idea that, in swimming, an accused is guilty until he or she proves their innocence. If he is, then thank God that view is not running the country. I did notice Wielgus was also reported as saying;

    “Our athletes are like All-American kids. If you align yourself with them, you don’t run the risk of athletes being found in some strip club in Vegas.”

In fact of course swimming has had its share of mishaps; DUI convictions, social drug busts and now Jessica Hardy has a performance enhancing problem. It was always likely the Wielgus “cleaner that clean” position would bite him on the bum. And sure enough it has. This is what he had to say about Jessica Hardy’s positive test:

    “We are hopeful the matter will be resolved expeditiously. Out of respect for the hearing process, USA Swimming will have no further comment at this time.”

I see, suddenly the hearing process becomes important. We are not quite so gung-ho about “throwing you out of the sport” or quick to abandon basic rights such as “innocent until proven guilty.” The change is not so much a flip flop; more of a tumble turn.

And thank goodness for that. Certainly Hardy deserves all the protection the sport and the law can offer. She may have been denied the right to challenge for a gold medal; she should never be denied the right to her “Golden Thread” of justice.