This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.
The thing about defending universal moral principles is that it means you have to defend fair treatment, even for despicable people. This is unpopular, but if principles only apply when we like them to, then they are not principles at all.
That brings me to Bill Cosby. The actor's sexual assault conviction was thrown out because it was revealed that a Pennsylvania prosecutor had agreed to give Cosby immunity in exchange for his testimony in a civil case. That prosecutor's office then broke its promise in order to charge him. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn the decision that released Cosby from prison.
Of course, the internet is furious, and people are chastising the Supreme Court for its decision. This anger is understandable. Cosby's legal victory does not mean that he did not commit the crimes he is accused of. The accusations against him are numerous, credible, and sickening.
This is one important reason why police and prosecutors ought to adhere to strict standards and not break rules in order to achieve wins. But, in a free society, the only reasonable thing to do with convictions that come from an unjust process is to overturn them. Anger over the fact that Cosby is free should be directed at the prosecutor's office for making the deal in the first place.
To expect courts to uphold convictions regardless of the law is to grant the authorities free reign to do anything to get a conviction. Constitutional protections cannot apply to some people and not others, even if those people are actually guilty. We cannot reliably determine guilt and innocence without a fair process.
To believe that the rights of the accused are unnecessary when it comes to bad people like Cosby is to embrace a lawless ends-justify-the-means-ism. If there is no principle that limits this belief, there is no limit on what bad things you can do, as long as you perceive it to be justified.
I am glad, at least, that the public isn't claiming Cosby is innocent on the basis of baseless ideological conspiracy theories a la O. J. Simpson and Jussie Smollett. But it is unfortunate that instead, they are jumping to the equally lawless "Why do we even need a trial?" mentality expressed during the Derek Chauvin case.
I'll quote from a recent Out of Frame, because I think this says it well:
The justice system in America was explicitly designed with due-process standards at its core to protect the accused from the possible error or malice of his or her accusers. Principles like the presumption of innocence, the right to face accusers
in an open forum where the alleged crimes are specifically stated, impartial review of the evidence, and that everyone gets a fair hearing before losing their life, liberty, or property are the very essence of true justice. [...] We can't pick and choose who gets to have an impartial trial and who doesn't.