Better that 10 guilty men go free than to convict a single innocent man
No, the foregoing statement is not a verbatim quote. However, it is a relatively accurate paraphrase of the now famous sentiment expressed by the revered English legal scholar William Blackstone – not to be confused with the well known magician Harry Blackstone or his nearly equally famous son Harry Blackstone, Jr.
All joking aside, the essence of this quote forms the very cornerstone of the system of justice that separates the United States from virtually every other civilized nation.
Think about it: the presumption of innocence; the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt; the requirement of a unanimous jury verdict. These core elements of our system of criminal justice all flow directly from the premise that the wrongful conviction of a single innocent person is 10 times worse than a guilty person going unpunished.
Many of us are instinctively patriotic – downright ‘jingoistic’ – about the protections afforded us by the Bill of Rights: the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure of our person or effects; the right to remain silent if accused of wrongdoing; the right to be represented by counsel; the right to a trial by jury.
We all take off our hats and hold our hands over our hearts when we hear the national anthem at a sporting event. We all get misty eyed at images of our enlisted men and women returning from active duty. We all hang our flags on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Presidents Day.
But how many of us grumble disparagingly under our breath during the evening news when a photograph of a suspect is displayed during a report of a criminal investigation based on the suspect’s race or ethnicity or socio-economic status? How many of us could really be fair and impartial jurors in a criminal case after we have seen or read wholly unsubstantiated news accounts of the alleged incident? How many of us refrain from commenting (gossiping?) about the sensational and salacious tidbits that spread about a criminal case we have seen or heard about on the news? How many of us would honor – really honor – the Defendant’s Constitutional Presumption of Innocence?
Let’s face it. If you grew up in an upper middle class (or better) family and neighborhood, there may not be anyone in your immediate or extended family who has ever even been accused, let alone convicted, of a criminal offense. O.K., maybe someone in your family got a DUI on his or her way home from the annual company Christmas party, or maybe someone in your family got caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana while in high school or college. But the fact of the matter is that real first hand experience with the criminal justice system is rare among most middle class (and above) registered voters. The people most likely to be called for Jury Duty.
We live in truly amazing times. An event can occur in New York and someone in Los Angeles can log on to a near “real time” live video feed. We can call from San Diego to Maine on our cell phones from our cars and tell each other the events of the day. CNN provides round-the-clock coverage of national newsworthy events. Cable networks provide real-time coverage of trials across the nation. We have access to information that may be deemed wholly unsubstantiated, unreliable and inadmissible at the ultimate trial of a sensationalized crime.
Can we be “good jurors” in today’s day and age? Can we decide cases based solely on evidence admitted into court – regardless of what we may have seen or heard about a case on cable news the day the event occurred long before trial was scheduled? Moreover, do we all still agree that it truly is ‘Better that 10 guilty men go free than to convict a single innocent man’ or is it too easy to ignore the reality of wrongful conviction, as long as it isn’t happening to any of the neighbors in our subdivisions?
The Innocence Project has now had some 100 death sentences overturned based upon post-conviction evidence. According to their study of the first 70 cases reversed:
- Over 30 of them involved prosecutorial misconduct.
- Over 30 of them involved police misconduct which led to wrongful convictions.
- Approximately 15 of them involved false witness testimony.
- 34% of the police misconduct cases involved suppression of exculpatory evidence. 11% involved outright evidence fabrication.
- 37% of the prosecutorial misconduct cases involved suppression of exculpatory evidence.
- 25% involved knowing use of false testimony.
Keep in mind, these statistics involve Death Penalty cases wherein the State sought to literally kill the innocent scapegoat who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I am certain that William Blackstone is literally rolling over in his grave.
How many of those 100 innocent, wrongly accused citizens were convicted in the media before jury selection ever began in their trial? How many were wholly deprived of their Constitutional Presumption of Innocence? If we allow ourselves to make watershed decisions far “upstream” about who is and is not deserving of the protections afforded by our Constitution, then our entire system of justice becomes a hollow shell with a predetermined outcome. We all need to remember that our system of justice is what truly separates us from all other civilized nations. The way we as a community treat those accused of crimes defines us as a nation. We must treat those accused of heinous crime with blind and impartial fairness as much for them as we do for our own integrity.