Saving the Innocent, Revisited

Paul Cassell, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, offers statistical evidence about the wrongful conviction rate:

Justice Scalia cited a figure of 0.027% as a possible error rate. But the conventional view in the literature is that, for violent crimes, the error rate is much higher—at least 1%, and perhaps as high as 4% or even more.

My article suggests a much lower estimate is appropriate. Based on a careful review of the available empirical literature, it is possible to assemble the component parts of a wrongful conviction rate calculation by looking at error rates at trial, the ratio of wrongful convictions obtained through trials versus plea bargains, and the percentage of cases resolved through pleas. Combining empirically based estimates for each of these three factors, a reasonable (and possibly overstated) calculation of the wrongful conviction rate appears, tentatively, to be somewhere in the range of 0.016%–0.062%—a range that comfortably embraces Justice Scalia’s often-criticized figure.

This reminds me of a pair of posts from 13 years ago, which I combine below, with minor editing.

*    *     *

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.” 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!”…

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”:

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!…

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….

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….

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?”

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.

Now I read this (on July 27, 2005):

[Texas] Gov. Rick Perry changed the 28 sentences to life in prison after the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be executed because of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

History shows release is possible for some of them.

Death penalties [in Texas] were halted for four years after the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman vs. Georgia.

According to state prison records reviewed by The Dallas Morning News, 40 of the 47 Texas inmates who left death row then have been released from prison.

Two died in prison and five remain behind bars.

At least two who were released killed again. One was Kenneth McDuff, who was convicted in 1992 for killing two women. He was executed in 1998.

Of the 40 who were released, 22 committed new offenses ranging from misdemeanors to murder. About half of those paroled returned to prison because of new crimes or violations of parole. Many led quiet lives.

Evidently, in our “enlightened” society, it is better that many innocent persons be victimized so that some murderers can lead “quiet lives.”

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