Why Officials Should Reserve Judgment in Criminal Cases
“Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key.” That’s what Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat from New York and fifth-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership, tweeted November 10, nine days before a jury acquitted Rittenhouse on all charges following claims of self-defense in the shooting deaths of two men during the Kenosha riots in 2020. Jeffries, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, had, ironically, made a name for himself as an advocate of defendant-oriented criminal justice reform.
The Jeffries comment, on which he later doubled down, passed with little national notice. Believe it or not, however, it was once expected that prominent elected officials in the U.S. speak in cautious and tentative tones about allegations of criminality before a verdict had been reached in court.
In 1970 President Richard Nixon imprudently suggested at a press conference that cult leader Charles Manson, then on trial for the still-infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, was in fact guilty. An outcry promptly forced Nixon to issue a statement walking back the comment. An excerpt:
“My remarks were in the context of my expression of a tendency on the part of some to glamorize those identified with a crime. The last thing I would do is prejudice the legal rights of any person, in any circumstances.