‘Alleged,’ ‘accused’ are important words

Some readers wonder why the Express-News and other media report that Malik Nadal Hasan “allegedly” killed 12 people and wounded 31 on Nov. 5 at Fort Hood, or why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is described as a “suspect” in an “alleged terrorist attack” on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

Legitimate questions. Scores of witnesses saw what occurred. Both men were wounded, arrested, indicted and remain incarcerated. So why the $10 legalese when anyone with 2 cents worth of common sense knows what happened and who did it?

“If a radical Islamic terrorist sitting in seat 19A on that flight did not set his own underwear on fire trying to blow the airplane up and kill almost 300 innocent human beings, then who the heck did it?” wrote Marcus Williams of Charlotte. “This political correctness is going to be the death of the United States of America unless something changes real soon.”

Williams’ e-mail, published in today’s letters to the editor, took issue with a Dec. 30 column by Eugene Robinson, who, Williams noted, used the term “alleged” or “allegedly” three times to describe the near-disaster on Christmas Day.

Similarly, other readers wonder why Hasan’s actions also are “alleged” with the added dagger: “Why don’t you call him a terrorist or radical Muslim terrorist?”

To answer the last question first, no terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for Hasan’s (alleged) actions, nor has Hasan — as far as I know — professed a link to al-Qaida. Abdulmutallab did claim allegiance to al-Qaida, a point confirmed by an al-Qaida group.

Further, after reading “Hasan left clues,” a Washington Post story published on Page 1 of the Express-News New Year’s Day, I see Hasan as lonely, deranged and devout, but a terrorist? While terrorism is in the eye of the attacked, I see no proof Hasan was linked to a recognized terrorist group. Certainly, if a U.S. Army officer was working for al-Qaida, al-Qaida would be crowing about it, and al-Qaida isn’t.

As for why reporters refer to Hasan and Abdulmutallab as “accused” or “suspects,” and their activities as “alleged,” the answer is simple: Both have been accused, but they’ve not been convicted.

The Bill of Rights provides for a presumption of innocence, even to a rascal who is caught red-handed. The Sixth Amendment grants “the accused” a fair trial “by an impartial jury,” and “the Assistance of Counsel for his (sic) defence,” if need be.

While that may at times seem absurd, the media’s reasons for reporting it as we do are legal, also grounded in the Bill of Rights, which grants newspapers “freedom … of the press” — but not the freedom to pre-ordain guilt.

Calling anyone a killer, or saying he’s guilty, in print or on the air before he’s convicted, is wrong. Couching our language in legalese as we do is not being politically correct. It would be libelous, illegal, to do otherwise.

Now you may holler that someone is a killer or a rapist — and the First Amendment allows you to do that — but you won’t find us cooperating by posting your verdict before a defendant is tied to a verdict.

As those who follow the U.S. criminal justice system know, it is often messy, and these two — Hasan and Abdulmutallab — are just beginning a process that no doubt will be ugly, hurtful to many people and diligently reported in the media.

But they will get a fair trial and are presumed innocent till their juries speak.

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