Presumption of Innocence

Today I saw my aunt and cousin again, for the first time in a half-dozen years. But not in person. They were framed for public consumption in yesterday’s issue of The New Paper. They were in the news because TNP interviewed them after he was picked up by the police during a sweep at Downtown East.

Looking at his tattoo, I wondered what had become of him. What he had gone through in the years before. What the man he is growing into will become. My mother pointed the tattoo out to me, saying that she had never expected him to turn out this way.

The underlying subtext was that Chia Feng Ji had run afoul of the law. Repeatedly.

There are a lot of things I don’t know about him. I don’t know if he had a criminal record. I don’t know why he wears a tattoo of a crucifix. I don’t know why he is seventeen but in Secondary Three, when the median age of students in that grade is fifteen. I don’t know the company he keeps, I don’t know how he was raised, I don’t know anything of any import about him. All I do know is that he has a tattoo and was detained and questioned during the sweep. And that Downtown East was the scene of two vicious gang attacks in recent memory.

This isn’t enough for a presumption of guilt. This isn’t enough to assume that he had broken the law.

Feng Ji was picked up during the sweep. But it doesn’t mean he was guilty of something. When conducting a sweep, the police look for people who fit specific profiles. This includes race, age, tattoos, behaviour, clothing, known criminal records, behaviour, and other factors. Feng Ji was approached by the police because he happened to fit the profile the police were looking for. That is all I know. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a criminal.

He said, “All they told me was that it was a screening, but I was not worried as I didn’t do anything wrong”. (TNP, pg 6, 10 November 2010) My mother apparently took offence at that statement, saying ‘he never learn his lesson’. It’s possible my mother knows something I don’t. It’s possible that he was lying. But it’s also possible that he has not done anything wrong – and I have no evidence to the contrary. I cannot say he has turned bad.

Feng Ji has a tattoo. I think my mother was shocked by it – and the underlying subtext was that he must have done something illegal, and might have associated with criminals. Maybe she’s right. But I don’t know. Having a tattoo that is not a gang symbol doesn’t make you a miscreant. Sure, he is 17 years old – but Singapore has no minimum age on tattoos. He might have gotten into trouble with his school for having one – or not. I don’t know. And even if he did, it doesn’t mean that he has since embarked on a career in crime, or that he hasn’t repented. I don’t know enough to point any fingers at him.

According to TNP Feng Ji was asked four questions: if he had broken the law before, if he were living with his parents, if he were a gang member, and if he were still schooling. I only have answers to two of those questions: he lives with his parents, and he is still schooling. I know this by inferring from the report. His responses to the other two were not published. I don’t know anything about his legal standing.

There is a lot I don’t know about him. I don’t know anything about him that points to a past or present criminal record. I cannot and will not judge him, nor condemn him, on the basis of what little I know. I can’t say that he is guilty of any wrongdoing – so I will continue to treat him like everybody else. Maybe he has a history of crime, maybe he had committed crimes yet unpunished, but it is not fair to let this possibility colour my judgment. Even if he has a criminal record, I will not let his past misdeeds stain my perceptions if he has redeemed himself. All I can do is extend to him a presumption of innocence, at least until more verifiable facts come to light.

And ask that you do the same.

Presumption of Innocence

4 thoughts on “Presumption of Innocence

  1. Most people are quick to jump to conclusions; they cannot hold themselves back from having preconceived notions about specific states of affairs and thus will do anything to reinforce their notions, including holding unfounded opinions. Simply put, people generally have a confirmation bias. Presumption of innocence is something artificial that we have to create out of thin air and codify as a law just to combat this form of inherent human prejudice.

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