Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Research Behind Wrongful Criminal Verdicts

When most people talk about wrongful jury verdicts in criminal cases, especially rape cases, they are only talking about wrongful convictions. Their failure to mention wrongful acquittals often stems from a belief that justice is only measured by what is considered fair or unfair to criminal defendants.

That means that from this limited point of view a wrongful acquittal becomes a fair outcome of the criminal justice system rather than an unfair one. The prevalence of guilt from this perspective only estimates the ratio of guilt of those who go to trial. A prevalence of provable guilt that isn't near 1.0 (100%) is viewed as unfair while the material prevalence of guilt among those not indicted is considered immaterial.

From this limited point of view the alleged victim only counts as a source of hostile evidence. The impact of the case on real victims also becomes immaterial.

This is demonstrated most obviously in a 1825 quote from Blackstone: "it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" In practical terms this translates into "it is better that ten victims see their perpetrators escape justice so they will be free to offend again than that one defendant to be wrongfully convicted."

When some people quote Blackstone's ratio regarding rape cases, they aren't talking about convictions but indictments. To them an indictment on a sex crime is elevated to or above the level of a conviction on a non-sex crime. Thus the talk about the mere report of rape as ruining a man's life.

Many of these people's own rhetoric (real rapists deserve to die) and the systems they support (fair only for the defendant) directly contributes to this "ruining" although these people rarely acknowledge their contribution to that problem. When systematic fairness is only measured from the defendant's point of view, many people will know that they can't trust that charges being dropped or an acquittal or even a declaration of innocence equals no evidence that a crime was committed by that person.

For me the problem with using Blackstone's or anyone else's ratio is they are a recipe for injustice -- sometimes for both real crime victims and innocent defendants. The goal should be to reduce all systematic problems to maximize the convictions of all those who committed the crime and to minimize the convictions of all those who did not commit the crime, not to find some perfect ratio of injustice.

Think about DNA evidence which is found after the verdict and which proves the verdict wrong. When there is a wrongful conviction, the defendant's attorneys can attempt to have that conviction overturned. But when there is a wrongful acquittal the DNA evidence cannot overturn the acquittal.

That means that proper and timely collection and handling of DNA evidence is critically important to both real victims and innocent defendants. It is also critically important to public safety.

The same is true about reducing the impact of all stereotypes in all criminal cases. The guilty shouldn't be viewed as innocent because the rape victim is painted by the defense as the type of woman who can't say no. And the innocent defendant shouldn't be viewed as guilty because the defendant is painted by the prosecutor as someone who skulks in the darkest shadows of dark alleys.

Here's the abstract for On Measuring the Balance between Wrongful Convictions and Wrongful Acquittals in Criminal Trials by Bruce Spencer, Northwestern University - Institute for Policy Research. This study looks at cases involving burglary and auto theft, not sex crimes but many of the systemic issues still apply to sex crimes. As important as what the data shows is the discussion of what the data can't show us.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:58 AM   1 comments links to this post


At September 23, 2008 12:18 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

For anyone who reads this post and who assumes that I have a disregard for the innocent, you are wrong.

Blackstone's quote is what shows a disregard for the innocent -- as long as those innocent people are crime victims and not criminal defendants.

The goal should be to strive for accuracy and effectiveness in criminal cases while respecting the rights of all parties to criminal cases. Defendants, witnesses, and crime victims.

If we just stopped prosecuting murder cases the number of wrongful murder convictions would drop to zero, but nobody would seriously suggest we do that in the name of protecting the innocent.

We all understand that murder is a serious crime which we can't afford to ignore.


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