One of the most well-known and frequently quoted legal maxims is this: it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
That was written by Sir William Blackstone in 1765, but it is far from the first or only expression of the idea. Internationally, many scholars, lawmakers and leaders have agreed that it is better to have a criminal justice system that errs on the side of freedom.
Recently, however, a poll revealed that 60% of Americans surveyed considered wrongful acquittals to be just as bad an outcome as wrongful convictions. Furthermore, people who believed that were more likely to convict.
We cover wrongful convictions on this blog because we believe it is far better for the guilty to go free than for an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted.
Unfortunately, innocent people are being convicted all too frequently in America’s criminal justice system. In the vast majority of wrongful convictions, that meant the real perpetrator went unpunished, often later committing new crimes. There were a record 238 exonerations in America last year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The nonprofit criminal justice newsroom The Marshall Project summarized a few of those exonerations in a recent article. Some of the main reasons people get wrongly convicted include:
Mistaken eyewitness testimony – often, eyewitnesses are pressured into identifying someone. Sometimes they recant their testimony later.
Brady violations – police and prosecutors are supposed to turn over all their evidence to the defense before trial, including anything they know that could help the defense. Sometimes, they withhold that evidence.
A rigid, unresponsive system – in one case, a man was convicted of raping his stepdaughter, but she never even accused him. She wrote over 100 letters to the district attorney’s office saying that her stepfather was innocent, but nobody would listen.
Predatory policing – Chicago’s main prosecutor, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, led the nation in exonerations last year. Since 2017, 212 convictions have been overturned because it was shown that some officers were extorting money from and planting evidence on the residents of the Ida B. Wells housing projects.
At every point in the process, the system failed these exonerees. At every point, the system favored getting a conviction over protecting the innocent. We need to step back and make sure we’re truly treating every defendant as innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.