I recently saw Herman Cain complain that he’d been “convicted in the court of public opinion.” Of course, that’s a popular cliché. I’ll just make a few observations:
i) Oftentimes there’s more than one court of public opinion. There’s a court that convicts the accused, but another court that acquits the accused.
ii) Apropos (i), Cain has no doubt been damaged by public allegations of sexual misconduct. However, that cuts both ways. He has public detractors, but he also has public supporters. One tries to pull him down while the other tries to prop him up. So his complaint is rather one-sided.
iii) The court of public opinion is unregulated and often unfair. It has no consistent standards.
However, the court of public opinion can sometimes be superior to the court of law. Judges routinely treat certain types of probative evidence as inadmissible based on legal technicalities. A voluntary confession will be tossed because the suspect wasn’t Mirandized. Background evidence will be peremptorily excluded because it’s “prejudicial.” Incriminating evidence will be excluded because the police didn’t have a search warrant.
Put another way, judges often apply the genetic fallacy. It doesn’t matter if the evidence is probative, but how it was obtained.
As a result, juries often have a very blinkered, very skewed impression of the accused. They only see and hear what the judge allows them to see and hear, which is artificially truncated. By contrast, those who bother to follow the story in the news media may have a much broader database from which to evaluate the allegations.
As a result, there’s nothing inherently or antecedently suspect about conviction in the court of public opinion. Sometimes that verdict is more accurate than a court of law.