An indictment is not a conviction or indicator of guilt

A story I wrote in last week’s Floyd Press — about the indictment of a female member of Floyd County’s rescue squad on four sexual abuse charges involving a 16-year-old boy — generated a lot of comment and public debate in Floyd County.

Customers at Express Mart in Floyd cornered owner Roger Hollandsworth — a Rescue Squad officer — and demanded to know how he could “allow someone like that on the squad.” Some assumed, incorrectly, that the charges stemmed from alleged incidents from her duties with the squad.

Diners at Blue Ridge Restaurant came up my table during breakfast and assumed she is guilty of the charges.

“Let’s don’t assume anything,” I said. “An indictment is not a conviction.  There’s an old saying in legal circles that the grand jury system is so rigged in favor of the prosecution that a ham sandwich could be indicted.”

That’s the problem when someone is indicted and news of that indictment is published in a newspaper or broadcast over the airwaves.  Too many people assume that an indictment is an indicator of guilt.

It’s not. An indictment simply means a grand jury was presented enough information to suggest a crime may have taken place and that someone should be charged with that alleged crime.

The grand jury reviews material collected by law enforcement and prosecutors.  It does not hear from the defendant.  That comes later.

The American criminal justice system operates under the theory that anyone charged with a crime is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.”

As a newspaper reporter who covers courts, I often write about local people who face indictment for crimes they may or may not have committed.  Some end up convicted in a trial. Some cop a plea.  Some are cleared of the charges and go home.

Everyone should remember this before assuming anything about anyone is named in a story about a grand jury indictment.

© 2004-2021 Blue Ridge Muse

4 thoughts on “An indictment is not a conviction or indicator of guilt”

  1. It is important to remember the fact, as you point out here, that the courts, the law states that one is innocent until proven guilty. However it is a natural fact that many will assume the question of “guilt” is enough to make it the topic of conversation, especially in a small, tight-knit community. In the age of instant “news stories”, the e-tech age and shared info- true or not- the court of public opinion often acts too quickly to convict without benefit of due process. I would now speak to the image used in this article which includes the crosshairs of a rifle scope. I thought the media cried foul and blamed Mrs. Palin for causing the Arizona tragedy by such imagery. Tisk, tisk Otherwise, nice composite.

  2. This age of “instant news stories” as cited in the previous response is absolutely true. The real problem with them is that often irreparable damage is done to a person or persons before they even have their day in court. In a case as sensitive as this, the indictment should have been sealed and the case should have remained a little more private pending its disposition. A little respect for that could have gone a long way as well. I guess that doesn’t matter as long as people in Floyd are given something to talk about…regardless of the damage done.

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