A 32-word headline to a recent news story regarding allegations of fraud and corruption made against police, city officials, judges, and private attorneys in Stillwater, Oklahoma, offers an opportunity to discuss the vital distinction between allegations and facts.
Allegations are easy to make. Get enough people making the same allegations, and those allegations may be accepted as facts. Nevertheless, there is a measurable difference between the two.
Fortunately for anyone accused of wrongdoing, whether public officials accused of fraud and corruption or an 18-year-old student accused of a crime, an allegation can’t transform into a fact unless there is evidence in support. Stacking allegation upon allegation simply means you have multiple allegations. It doesn’t mean you have the facts necessary to prove something true.
After all, it’s easy to assume something must be valid when several people make a similar allegation. Still, every person making such an accusation could be wrong. Whether someone makes an allegation of corruption against public officials or police accuse a person of committing a crime, mere allegations do not equal truth.
Distinction between allegations and facts
Law school teaches aspiring lawyers to recognize the difference between allegations and facts. An allegation is a factual claim which has yet to be proven. Indictments and other instruments accusing a person of committing a crime contain allegations prosecutors have the burden of proving true through evidence presented at a trial.
Until the truth of the allegations is proven in court or admitted by the accused, those allegations remain nothing more than unproven claims. An allegation generally triggers an investigation to identify and gather evidence that proves it factually accurate. For example, O.J. Simpson was accused of committing a double homicide, but he was acquitted, because the evidence presented by the prosecution failed to prove the allegations.
Yet, a poll completed twenty years after his trial’s conclusion showed that 83% of white Americans and 57% of Black Americans nevertheless believed the allegations against him. Such is the power of an allegation…it can become a “fact” in people’s minds even when the evidence fails to support it.
Allegations and the right to counsel
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that, in all criminal prosecutions, the accused has the right to the assistance of counsel. The right to counsel applies regardless of the nature or quantity of the allegations made against the accused. Counsel is necessary to help preserve the presumption of innocence.
The presumption of innocence is not – as many people mistakenly believe – a right mentioned specifically in the Constitution. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the presumption of innocence as essential to facilitate an accused individual’s right to receive a fair trial as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The failure of a judge to remind jurors of the presumption of innocence has been enough for the Supreme Court to overturn a conviction.
The prosecution’s burden of proving allegations against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt is consistent with the presumption of innocence. The role of defense counsel is to protect the accused’s rights and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. Criminal defense attorneys accomplish this by challenging and testing the prosecution’s evidence.
Be skeptical about unproven allegations
If you decide to read the story cited here regarding leaked recordings and allegations of corruption against city officials in Stillwater, do so from the perspective of a prosecutor or defense lawyer. Instead of focusing on the number of accusations, look at who is making them and whether there is evidence proving the facts they want you to believe. As a defense attorney, call question on the facts and see if they pass the smell test. As a prosecutor, decide whether you feel the evidence at your disposal is sufficient to move forward in good faith.
It's an engaging exercise, and we’d all be better off taking this dual-sided approach more often.