Police have arrested a man with a criminal background after a fire destroyed a million-dollar home and one of the occupants is missing. The media has fixated on the man's criminal background, insinuating a presumption of guilt, but overlooked some troubling developments in the case, already. Although it has happened countless times in Philadelphia where there often is a rush to judge people accused of crimes, these concerns are not unique to Philadelphia as reflected by the following events.
Fire Destroys Home, Woman Disappears, Police Make Arrest
A fire erupted from an Ocean Township home on September 12, 2019, gutting the 6,000-square-foot house. One of the occupants never turned up, though investigators have not found a body in the rubble.
Another occupant of the home, and apparently also the missing woman's on-again-off-again boyfriend, was found the next day driving the missing woman's new car. Inside the vehicle, police found some of the missing woman's jewelry, as well as two shotguns.
They arrested the man and charged him with possession of stolen property for the jewelry and car, as well as prohibited possession of a firearm for having the shotguns with a prior felony conviction.
Arraignment Gets Testy, But Not for the Reasons the Media Thinks
At the arraignment on September 23, the man heard the charges against him and learned for the first time that he was also being accused of assaulting a police officer during the arrest. The news came as a surprise to him and led to him speaking up in court in confusion.
Police claiming that a suspect assaulting them during an arrest is not unheard of – they often claim that any contact initiated by a suspect amounts to assault or battery, and prosecutors tend to go along with it.
The court hearing got even testier, though, when the prosecutor mentioned in passing that the man had once been accused of sexual assault. While those charges had been dropped, it did not stop the prosecutor from trying to use them as evidence that the suspect should be denied bail and kept in jail until trial.
In the end, the prosecutor's tactics proved to be successful: The judge denied bail.
Media Focusing on Criminal History, Glosses Over Court Problems
The media stories about the court hearing all focus on the man's criminal background, which apparently began when he turned 19 and includes an 11-year jail sentence. He is also apparently undergoing drug and alcohol treatment.
Altogether, this information does nothing else but suggest to readers that there is little doubt that the suspect is guilty not only as charged, but is also responsible for the woman's disappearance. This may end up being true, but that is why we have the court process – to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, what happened and who was responsible.
Prior criminal convictions are not supposed to taint that process.
What the media should really note is that the prosecutor used a dropped sexual assault charge to try keeping the suspect in jail for trial. When a charge gets dropped, it often means that the prosecutor pursuing it realized that it could not be proven. It's a serious issue if dropped accusations can influence bail decisions.
Joseph D. Lento: Criminal Defense in Philadelphia
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia. Call his law office at (215) 535-5353 or contact him online for the vigorous defense you need.
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