As President Donald Trump addressed Congress for his second State of the Union Tuesday night, an alleged MS-13 gang member was being arraigned on murder charges at a criminal court in Queens, New York. Though the case was just getting started, that didn't stop the president from bringing it up during his speech.
Trump mentioned the suspect, Ramiro Gutierrez, 26, as part of a routine bit he does to link violence caused by MS-13 to illegal immigration and make a case for building his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The savage gang, MS-13, now operates in at least 20 different American states, and they almost all come through our southern border,” Trump said to the millions watching. “Just yesterday, an MS-13 gang member was taken into custody for a fatal shooting on a subway platform in New York City.”
That wasn’t the first time Trump acted as judge and jury before having all the facts. He often brings up examples of crimes before prosecutors can secure a conviction — and sometimes before police have even arrested or charged anyone. During his campaign and as president, for example, Trump routinely referenced José Inez García Zárate, an undocumented immigrant accused of shooting and killing Kate Steinle, 32, in San Francisco in 2015.
At the time, Trump called Zárate an “animal” and used the case to push his hardline immigration platform.
“We don’t need this speech to remind us that to the president, the presumption of innocence is for his friends and political operatives, and no one else,” said Andrew Cohen, a legal analyst and fellow at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. “This is a man with no concept of due process or trial fairness.”
The president’s words do run the risk of contaminating public opinion, according to experts, especially with hot-button issues like immigration or terrorism. But he probably won't affect the impartiality of an investigation or trial. A jury ultimately concluded, for example, that Steinle died from a stray bullet, fired from a gun that Zárate had found and accidentally discharged. He was acquitted of murder charges but convicted on a lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun and sentenced to time served.
Gutierrez, the man arrested Monday, is accused of shooting an alleged rival gang member, Abel Mosso, 20, in the face in broad daylight on a 7-train platform in Queens a day earlier. Cellphone video of the scuffle — and subsequent shooting — went viral.
In an interview with the New York Post before Trump’s State of the Union address, Gutierrez’s lawyer Scott Bookstein predicted the president might latch onto his client’s case.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the president brings it up in the State of the Union. It’s absolutely crazy. It undermines my client’s presumption of innocence,” Bookstein told the Post. “They’re using this to promote xenophobia and their right-wing agenda.” (Bookstein did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.)
Cohen said that he didn’t expect Trump’s comments would change the course or outcome of Gutierrez’s case, but he said he could see “a defense attorney citing the speech in a motion about prejudicial pretrial publicity or in comments to prospective jurors about whether they’ve prejudged the case.”
Not the first time
As police were in the early stages of investigating an explosion on the London Underground that left 30 injured in September 2017, Trump had already declared the incident “another attack in London by a loser terrorist” on Twitter. He added that it was further proof that a “travel ban” was necessary to keep the U.S. safe.
British Prime Minister Theresa May described Trump’s tweets as “not helpful.” "I never think it's helpful for anybody to speculate on what is an ongoing investigation," she said. (The incident was later categorized by EuroPol as “jihadist terrorism.”)
Even before Trump took office, he made his opinion in certain criminal cases clear. In 1989, following the arrest of five black and Hispanic teens in connection with the rape of a woman in Central Park, Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the state to reinstate the death penalty. All five teens spent between five and 13 years in prison each and were eventually exonerated when a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
Trump, however, isn’t the first public official in American history to steamroll legal standards, according to Charles Gardner Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and an expert in judicial conduct and ethics.
Edwin Meese, who served as Attorney General in the Reagan Administration, once said that “if a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” But Geyh thinks that Meese had a pro law-enforcement bias. That doesn’t, however, seem to be the issue with Trump, “given his willingness to decry FBI investigations and arrests as illegitimate when it serves his purposes,” Meese said.
Innocent until proven guilty
The notion that someone is innocent until proven guilty is not a foreign concept to the president; he invoked the standard when he was asked about the numerous sexual assault and misconduct allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh which surfaced during the confirmation process last year.
“When you are guilty until proven innocent, it is just not supposed to be that way,” Trump said at a press conference last September. “Always, I heard you are innocent until proven guilty. I have heard this for so long, and it is such a beautiful phrase.”
Trump repeated that sentiment at Kavanaugh’s swearing in last October. “A man or woman must always be presumed innocent unless, and until, proven guilty,” the president declared.
Trump was also cautious to rush to judgement when he was asked about the disappearance of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi later in October — specifically, whether the Saudis had anything to do with it.
“You know, here we go again, you know ‘you’re guilty until proven innocent,”’ Trump said. “I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
According to the Washington Post, which Khashoggi wrote for, the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s assassination — a conclusion that Trump has continued to dispute.
Cover image: President Donald Trump gestures as a conductor as people in the chamber sing "Happy Birthday" to Judah Samet as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Same turned 81 on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)