Why I have a problem with the John Williams photo

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John Williams is an accused cop-killer.

The police believe, with a great deal of very credible evidence, that Williams is responsible for the shooting death of Cpl. Eugene Cole, after a confrontation in Norridgewock.

After days in hiding, he was apprehended alive and a photo of his arrest was released. It showed an emaciated Williams on the ground in the mud, his head pulled up by an officer grabbing his hair.

This photo was, of course, quickly shared on social media by people nationwide. The Bangor Daily News did not publish the photo.

When I saw the photo, I will admit that a very uneasy feeling settled into my stomach. I didn’t like it. To be clear, the reason I didn’t like it had nothing to do with any kind of sympathy for Williams, who is reprehensibly evil. It also has nothing to do with being weak on crime. Nor is indifference over the death of a sheriff’s deputy, which breaks my heart.

Rather, I actually had two problems with the photo.

The first wasn’t even with the photo itself, but how it made us react. As the photo went viral, comment sections on social media showed some disturbing — at least to me — perspectives on the arrest of Williams. “A murderer got exactly what he deserved, other than a bullet,” said one individual. “Would have been better with a bullet in his head,” said another. “He’s lucky they didn’t beat him to death,” and so on.

Folks, please stop saying things like that. Even in jest, we can never be comfortable with that type of “justice.”

Right now, even though we are virtually certain he is guilty, he is a suspect. He is accused. He has not been adjudicated. Until that time, he is innocent until proven guilty.

Our system presumes innocence for a reason. While I’m sure it won’t be the case with Williams, we are, in fact, often wrong about who we think is guilty. Roughly 10 percent of federal defendants are actually found not guilty, once they go to trial, and that doesn’t even count the charges that are dropped or never pursued.

In 2015, 149 people in the United States were cleared of crimes and released. These people served an average of 15 years in jail for crimes they did not commit, and five of the convicts were awaiting execution. Maybe you think that this is the price of being tough on crime, but I don’t. Giving the state the power to be cavalier with guilt and innocence is a recipe for tyranny.

That is why we don’t allow law enforcement to judge guilt and then hand out punishments. It is why their enforcement of the law needs to be dispassionate. It is why comments that suggest we should have just killed Williams make me so uncomfortable.

But my problem was also with the photo itself. The police who released it claimed that Williams was being uncooperative and they needed to take this photo to identify him. Fine, I accept that. But why was the photo then disseminated to the public?

I suspect the truth is that the arresting police were happy they collared a murderous thug who killed one of their brother officers, and they wanted to send the community a “got him” fist pump moment to cheer.

Understandable and forgivable, but I don’t think law enforcement should be spiking the football with trophy photos of criminals being apprehended. The photo pronounces him guilty — which, again, he almost certainly is — without a ruling of such in the criminal justice system, and takes an inappropriate victory lap over that deemed guilt.

This can’t be how we do things. Eventually someone we do this to will be innocent, and will have a mob calling for their blood without a trial.

We can’t let ourselves fall into that trap. Striving for a blind justice system is not about sympathy for murderers like Williams. It is about insisting that accused criminals — yes, even the ones that we know are guilty — are treated as innocent until the criminal justice system deems them guilty. And we should do that because a large number of those accused are in fact innocent, and should not be considered collateral damage in the pursuit of guilt.

Williams needs to be pronounced guilty by a court before he is treated as guilty. Until that time, he is innocent in the eyes of the law, no matter how reprehensible and unworthy we know him to be.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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