Saving the Innocent?

The killing by British police officers of an apparently innocent man in London’s Underground will cue the olde civil liberties chorus:

Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

–English jurist William Blackstone

“n” — the number of guilty persons — has increased since the late 1700s, when Blackstone wrote. Alexander “Sasha” Volokh offers some useful perspective:

Charles Dickens generously endorsed a value of n = “hundreds” for capital cases, and not just “that hundreds of guilty persons should escape,” but that they should escape “scot-free.” 99 Dickens was, in fact, so generous that hundreds of guilty persons escaping scot-free was not only better than one innocent person suffering — it was even better “than that the possibility of any innocent man or woman having been sacrificed, should present itself, with the least appearance of reason, to the minds of any class of men!” 100….

Of course, such blithe invocation could easily lead too far down the road to “inconsiderate folly” and “pestiferous nonsense.” As one author noted, there is “nothing so dangerous as a maxim”: 107

Better that any number of savings-banks be robbed than that one innocent person be condemned as a burglar! Better that any number of innocent men, women, and children should be waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered by wicked, wilful, and depraved malefactors, than that one innocent person should be convicted and punished for the perpetration of one of this infinite multitude of crimes, by an intelligent and well-meaning though mistaken court and jury! Better any amount of crime than one mistake in well-meant endeavors to suppress or prevent it! 108….

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, warned against the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from large values of n:

We must be on guard against those sentimental exaggerations which tend to give crime impunity, under the pretext of insuring the safety of innocence. Public applause has been, so to speak, set up to auction. At first it was said to be better to save several guilty men, than to condemn a single innocent man; others, to make the maxim more striking, fix the number ten; a third made this ten a hundred, and a fourth made it a thousand. All these candidates for the prize of humanity have been outstripped by I know not how many writers, who hold, that, in no case, ought an accused person to be condemned, unless evidence amount to mathematical or absolute certainty. According to this maxim, nobody ought to be punished, lest an innocent man be punished. 128 ….

James Fitzjames Stephen suggested that Blackstone’s maxim

resembles a suggestion that soldiers should be armed with bad guns because it is better that they should miss ten enemies than that they should hit one friend. . . . Everything depends on what the guilty men have been doing, and something depends on the way in which the innocent man came to be suspected. 134….

The story is told of a Chinese law professor, who was listening to a British lawyer explain that Britons were so enlightened, they believed it was better that ninety-nine guilty men go free than that one innocent man be executed. The Chinese professor thought for a second and asked, “Better for whom?” 238

That’s the question, isn’t it? Better for whom? It’s better for the guilty, who may claim more victims, but certainly not better for those victims.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained