Why I had a problem with the John Williams photo

John Williams is an accused cop-killer.

The police believe, with a great deal of very credible evidence, that Williams is responsible for the shooting death of Cpl. Eugene Cole, after a confrontation in Norridgewock.

Somerset County Deputy Cpl. Eugene Cole was killed during the early morning hours April 25 in Norridgewock. John D. Williams (right) is the suspect in the fatal shooting.
Associated Press

After days in hiding, he was apprehended alive and a photo of his arrest was released. It showed an emaciated Williams on the ground in the mud, his head pulled up by an officer grabbing his hair.

This photo was, of course, quickly shared on social media by people nationwide. The Bangor Daily News chose not publish it. When I saw the photo, I will admit that a very uneasy feeling settled into my stomach. I didn’t like it.

To be clear, the reason I didn’t like it had nothing to do with any kind of sympathy for Williams, who is reprehensibly evil. It also has nothing to do with being weak on crime. Nor was it indifference over the death of a sheriff’s deputy, which breaks my heart.

Rather, my first issue with the photo was not even about the image itself, but rather how it made us react. As it went viral, comment sections on social media showed some disturbing — at least to me — perspectives on the arrest of Williams. “A murderer got exactly what he deserved, other than a bullet,” said one individual. “Would have been better with a bullet in his head,” said another. “He’s lucky they didn’t beat him to death,” and so on.

I understand where the sentiment comes from, everyone, but please, I am begging you to stop saying things like that. Even in jest, we can never be comfortable with that type of “justice.”

Right now, even though we are virtually certain he is guilty, he is only a suspect. He is accused. He has not been adjudicated. Until he is, he is innocent until proven guilty.

“But we know he’s guilty,” you say. Indeed, I have virtually no doubt that you’re right. Yet, our system presumes innocence for a reason. While I’m sure it won’t be the case with Williams, we are in fact often wrong about who we think is guilty of a crime.

Roughly 10 percent of federal defendants are actually found not guilty, once they go to trial. Should they — particularly the accused murderers — have been shot and killed with some form of summary execution because we were sure they were guilty when we arrested them? And that number of exonerated arrestees doesn’t even take into consideration charges that are dropped or never pursued.

Even the system we have is imperfect. In 2015, 149 people in the United States were cleared of convictions and released. These people served an average of 15 years in jail for crimes they did not commit, and five of them were awaiting execution.

Perhaps you think that this is the price of being tough on crime. I do not.

This belief — that Williams should have been shot and killed — is so disturbing because it grants an unbelievable power to the state to be cavalier with guilt and innocence, and any such power in the hands of a government is a recipe for brutal tyranny.

Police are often convinced of guilt, and make an arrest of a person they are certain is guilty. Every day we see that those instincts can be — and often are — wrong. That is why we don’t allow law enforcement to judge guilt and then hand out punishments. It is why their enforcement of the law needs to be dispassionate. It is why you should reconsider any sentiment that says we should have just killed Williams.

But my problem with the photo goes beyond this — it is also a problem with the image itself.

The police who released it claimed that Williams was being uncooperative and they needed to take this photo to identify him. Fine, I accept that. But why was the photo then disseminated to the public? It certainly didn’t have to be for him to be identified.

I suspect the truth is that the arresting police were happy they collared a murderous thug who killed one of their brother officers, and they wanted to send the community a “got him” fist pump moment to cheer. A scumbag who got his due. Justice served.

Understandable and forgivable, but this can not become the norm. Law enforcement should not be spiking the football with trophy photos of criminals being apprehended.

The photo pronounces him guilty — which, again, he almost certainly is — without a ruling of such in the criminal justice system, and takes an inappropriate victory lap over that deemed guilt.

This can’t be how we pursue justice. Eventually someone we do this to will be innocent, and will have a mob calling for their blood without a trial.

We can’t let ourselves fall into that trap.

Striving for a blind justice system is not about sympathy for murderers like Williams. It is about insisting that accused criminals — yes, even the ones that we know are guilty — are treated as innocent until the criminal justice system deems them guilty.

And we should do that because a large number of those accused are in fact innocent, and should not be considered collateral damage in the pursuit of guilt.

Williams needs to be pronounced guilty by a court before he is treated as guilty. Until that time, he is innocent in the eyes of the law, no matter how reprehensible and unworthy we know him to be.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.