Breathe Easy, Respect the Presumption of Innocence

So the latest riposte in the war of t-shirt messages involving police shootings is this, via a report from TPM’s Brendan James:

A cop who owns a clothing business in Indiana has responded to protests over the police killing of an unarmed black man in New York with T-shirts reading: “Breathe Easy: Don’t Break the Law.”

The phrase was a play on the last words of the man, Eric Garner, after he was placed in a chokehold by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in July: “I can’t breathe.”

Jason Barthel, a police officer and owner of South Bend Uniform, told television station WSBT the shirts were selling quickly.

“We are not here to do anything negative to the public,” he told the station “We’re here to protect the public and we want you to breathe easy knowing that the police are here to be with you and for you and protect you.”

The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, but a grand jury on Dec. 3 decided not to indict Pantaleo in the death. Protesters demonstrating across the country in the wake of the decision have adopted “I Can’t Breathe” as a slogan.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the backlash to protests over the Brown and Garner’s killings is the underlying sentiment that both men assumed the risk of getting blown away by breaking the law. They were not convicted of anything in a court of law, and last time I checked, there is no state where selling black market cigarettes or stealing cigarillos or smoking reefer is a capital offense.

But the painful truth is, presumption of innocence is not a legal precept that’s ever been terribly popular. I may have told this story before, but the crusty old legal aid lawyer who taught the Criminal Procedure class I took in law school told us on the very first day: “Forget presumption of innocence. Your average juror looks at a defendant and says ‘Of course he probably did it. He’s up there in the dock, isn’t he?'” Mix in a little racism with this attitude, and it can provide a free pass for anyone–particularly anyone in a uniform–to get way out of line, since the victim “asked for it,” which means he or she isn’t really a victim at all, right? This needs to change.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.