Whether it set out to do so or not is unclear, but Secrets and Lies certainly sheds light on the dangers of trial by media, tunnel-visioned police investigations and how these two things are turning the "innocent until proven guilty" principle on its head.
The show's pilot episode opens with Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) having found the body of 6-year-old Tom. Ben's neighbors — all of whom are his friends — are immediately sorrowful for him because he was the one who made the gruesome discovery, and all the media wants is to interview the poor guy who found a dead child. All of those sentiments last for what seems like less than 24 hours. For all we know, Ben may very well be guilty, but isn't he meant to be treated as innocent until proven guilty?
Right from the get-go, the lead detective on the case, Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis), seems to doubt Ben's innocence. For reasons that aren't exactly crystal clear, she zeroes in on him. She treats him as a suspect immediately, appearing desperate to catch him in a lie and using seemingly benign holes and confusion in Ben's story as a reason to suspect him of murder. The only evidence she seems to have — Ben's missing flashlight and the fact that DNA testing shows he's the boy's father — is circumstantial and doesn't prove a thing. Yet she's hellbent on the idea that Ben is guilty.
As soon as it becomes apparent to the media that Ben might be a suspect (not to be confused with actual confirmation from the police that Ben actually is a suspect — confirmation the police never gave to the media), there's no holding back. All of the reporting skews toward the idea that mere suspicion of Ben is absolute proof that he is guilty.
His neighbors, who were at one time his friends, casual acquaintances and even people he's never met, certainly take the suspicion as an indication of guilt. Ben seems to immediately become shunned by his community — an unknown person paints "child killer" on his gate, his daughter becomes the victim of online abuse and he loses all of the work he had lined up. Only his family and his best friend entertain the idea that Ben is innocent. And this is all before any charges have been laid or a trial in court has taken place.
If there's one thing I know from the amount of crime shows I've watched, it's that a cloud of suspicion hanging over you will inevitably make you do things that only make you look more suspicious in an effort to rid yourself of the cloud of suspicion. Basically, once you are suspected of something, you'll always be met with suspicion by other people, regardless of whether or not you are ultimately acquitted. Once you've been labeled as something, shaking that label is an uphill battle.
I realize this isn't the best example, but O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, and I have yet to meet one person who has taken that acquittal to mean he isn't a murderer. If you're looking for a more lowbrow example, perhaps you could reach out to Katherine Heigl and ask if the general perception of her is still that she's difficult to work with.
Personally, when I think about the combined damage a tunnel-visioned police investigation and irresponsible reporting by media outlets can do, the first person who comes to mind is Amanda Knox. She was convicted in Italy of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, had that conviction overturned and then was once again found guilty in a retrial. Putting aside some of the most concerning aspects of Italy's justice system, Knox stands as a potent example of what happens when police zero in on evidence that can easily be explained and use it to imply guilt.
Also of concern is how the media never once genuinely questioned the reliability of the evidence, failing on multiple occasions to report that Knox's DNA was nowhere to be found in the room where Kercher was killed or that the police mishandled the collection of evidence, resulting in its contamination. Putting aside for a moment the question of how Knox was ever convicted in the first place, let alone twice, let's instead ask why the media's reporting was so intensely skewed toward the presumption of guilt. Why, during Knox's initial trial, were her hygiene habits and sexual history exploited by the media, instead of the focus of their reporting being the lack of DNA evidence against her? And when she was acquitted, I never saw a single interview with Knox that didn't require her to once again defend herself against the suggestion that she was a cold-blooded killer.
Knox's predicament, while different in terms of detail, does echo a lot of what took place in the Secrets and Lies premiere as well as what we can only predict will happen in future episodes. The biggest takeaway here is that criminal investigations that lack any sort of peripheral vision are incredibly dangerous, but they are even more diabolical when coupled with the media's almost-inevitable biased coverage of such investigations.
So, while the more obvious question to contemplate after the Secrets and Lies premiere is whether or not Ben did, in fact, kill Tom (and if he didn't, who did?), I'm way more concerned about whether our culture's determination to uphold the law and see justice done has meant we have completely abandoned one of the law's founding principles. Have we really become a society that requires defendants to prove themselves innocent rather than one that requires proof of guilt? And at what point will the general public begin to question media reporting and demand better than simply being spoon-fed a narrative without appropriate proof of its truth?
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