Swickard: My story of being innocent while presumed guilty

© 2014 Michael Swickard, Ph.D. Several weeks ago I protested the way the media fosters the presumption of guilt for people arrested. There was lots of pushback from people who know that whoever the police arrest are guilty regardless of our constitution. I did not explain that this is personal. I have not been arrested but there was once that I came close.
      At the time I was teaching at Albuquerque High School and it was Christmas. One evening I went to the recreation room at my apartment complex and played Christmas songs for two hours. In the audience was a Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff who was black. That had nothing to do with singing but later was important.
      This deputy sheriff was more than an acquaintance but less than a friend. The security guard that night looked in on us singing Christmas songs and then continued his rounds.
      About 9 p.m. we broke up. As I was walking out of the recreation room a woman asked for a dime for the pay phone. I handed her the dime. She looked disheveled as if things were not right.
      I went to my apartment, put my guitar away and grabbed my writing pad. At that time in my life I usually walked a mile to a Vips Big Boy Restaurant for coffee and writing. It was my preferred place to write.
      About half of the way there, on a ditch bank shortcut I was contentedly walking when two Albuquerque Police Department motorcycles came roaring up to me. I stood transfixed as they ran up to me and pointed their weapons at me. My quiet walk turned chaotic.
      They radioed, “We have him.” That did not sound good. I produced my driver’s license. They had not handcuffed me but I could tell that was next. I asked, “What is this all about?”
      One officer said, “An hour ago you raped a woman.”
      “Did not!” I said forcefully. “I was playing music the last two hours at my apartment recreation room. Do either of you know Gene, the black deputy sheriff? He was there and will vouch for me.”
       One of them did know Gene so it stalled them a bit. They were going to handcuff me and have a patrol car take me downtown. But I caused enough doubt. They radioed for a description again as we walked back to the apartments.
      The radio broadcast, “Six foot, 25 years old, white, close cut hair and he has braces on his teeth.”
Yep, that was me. They were just about to wait for the patrol car when the security guard walked out to meet us. He immediately said, “You’ve got the wrong guy. He was playing Christmas songs the last two hours. A deputy sheriff was in the audience.”
       One policeman asked the dispatcher to contact the hospital and check the description. In a short while it came back: “Five seven Hispanic dark hair and eyes.”
      Then I remembered giving the woman the dime. This poor woman had been assaulted and when asked for a description gave mine since I was the last person in her mind. At that point Gene, the Deputy Sheriff, came out and confirmed my story. So the policemen apologized and left.
      Consider if I had not been playing guitar for thirty people and as was my habit I decided to walk to the restaurant. Leaving the apartment complex a woman asks for a dime. I would have been arrested for rape.
      While I probably would have been cleared at some point, I would have been immediately fired from my job at the high school. It would have been blazed on the front page, Teacher Arrested For Rape. People would be quoted as saying, “It just goes to show you never know what evil lurks in someone’s heart.”
      At some point I would be cleared of the rape but presumed guilty by most people regardless. I have never told that story before, but for the grace of God I would have had my life ruined.
      Let us be careful to give the presumption of innocence in our media for those arrested. Americans are to be presumed innocent until convicted in a court of law.


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