November 13th, 2009
01:35 PM ET

50on50: Balloon boy – the judge’s surprise


[cnn-photo-caption image=http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/11/13/balloon.boy.heene/story.balloon.kusa.kmghjpg.jpg]

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

As I approach 50, I must remind myself, despite my “vast” life experience, always be prepared to be surprised. For example, this morning at 10:30am, CNN was covering the “balloon boy” parents’ court appearance - LIVE. What a waste of precious air time I thought. And then, I was surprised.


The defense attorney for the “balloon boy’s” father was explaining politely to the judge why the judge could keep things brief since his client understood the implications of his guilty plea. My eyes were glued to the right side of CNN’s screen which showed video of the great helium balloon flight – speeding through the sky – looking like a giant chef’s hat racing to pluck the father from the court room oven and deliver him to his alleged dream of a reality show.

But this was his reality show. In the courtroom. Pleading guilty. That’s when the surprise hit me. This story was not a waste of precious air time.

The judge, after listening to the defense attorney say brevity was acceptable, insisted on giving a thorough explanation to the defendant. The judge took his time to explain to balloon boy’s dad the implications of a guilty plea. You are presumed innocent in our system, the judge told “balloon boy’s” father, Richard Heene. By pleading guilty, the judge slowly and methodically emphasized, you are giving up that presumption of innocence.

To witness the judge slow down the process in the spirit of our judicial system was more thrilling than watching that helium balloon racing through the sky.


About a half hour later, again on CNN live, I listened to Attorney General Holder discuss a much more significant case, to say the least. He announced the government’s decision to try five of the 9/11 suspects in a civilian court of law. He expects that prosecutors will seek the death penalty. And he added: “I am confident in the ability of our courts to provide these defendants a fair trial, just as they have for over 200 years.”

That optimism about the fairness of the American judicial system was reinforced by the judge at a far less consequential court appearance a half hour earlier.

There is a legitimate debate over whether the 9/11 suspects should be tried in a military or civilian court which I won’t explore here. But I couldn’t help notice the same bedrock principle would apply to a silly prank as well as to one of the most violent crimes imaginable.

No matter what the charge, no matter the severity of the crime, in America, Innocent Until Proven Guilty.

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that, when you least expect it, whatever your age.


Later today my latest installment of how jury selection principles can help destroy the 18-49 year old demo in time, I hope, for my 50th birthday. I will acknowledge how sometimes youth does = influence.

Follow Michael Schulder's battle against getting kicked out of the 18-49 demo here

Filed under: Michael Schulder • Opinion
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. A. Smith

    After the Sheriff failed to obtain the evidence of any crime whatsoever, he resorted to Blackmail and Extortion in his attempts to create a plea to a crime.

    Threatening to deport the man's wife if they didn't plead guilty places the Colorado Sheriff' right up there with all of the most corrupt, disgusting and abusive authority's that should have never be given any public trust, nor any legal authority.

    And the News Media call this Blackmail and Extortion a Victory?

    A. Smith

    November 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm |
  2. Tim Gibson

    The only problem I had with the ballon boy reality show attempt is the bargain table, nothing ever comes without a bargain, and the unanswered question of why this couple should not be held in judgement in payment of services they requested for a false emergency.

    November 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm |