Law in Contemporary Society
-- MikeAbend - 15 June 2010

Innocent by Circumstance


I don't think I'll ever be convicted of a serious crime. This determination is not the result of knowledge of my future actions, but from an estimation of my future circumstances. The American Justice system is just that—a system. And as a lawyer, I understand its flaws and inconsistencies, as well as its benefits and strengths. This paper seeks to address the system’s approach to epistemology and show how status, rather than facts, can be more determinative of conviction.

The "System"

Conviction in this country results from a jury of our peers believing beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. Rules of evidence control what factors the jury can consider, and the judge manages the courtroom and case to make sure the defendant receives a fair hearing. However, the possibility of a false conviction will never be eliminated. In fact, the possibility of someone being convicted for a crime they did not commit is much higher than one would care to believe (see Baye's theorem).

Inherent Imperfection

One of the inherent imperfections in the system that allows for false positives is the human’s inability to truly know the facts of the case. As noted in the FRANK paper, there is no mortal way to perfectly translate the true facts into the consciousness of a juror. As humans we are unable to know what actually occurred, and instead rely on how the story is portrayed through witnesses and evidence. We then interpret the information through our filters and schemas, resulting in a solipsistic determination of truth instead of universal truth. Thus there is always a possibility of jurors wrongly convicting an innocent.

The Risk We All Run

The risk of being framed or being at the wrong place at the wrong time applies to everyone subject to the jurisdiction of our justice system. In the infinite possibilities of occurrences, there exists one circumstance where any person could possibly be indicted for a crime they did not commit. The question then remains whether any ambiguity in conviction coupled with punishment is worth it, or even necessary, for a functioning justice system.

Why Complacency?

Do We Accept the System As it is? We must first ask why, as a society, we are willing to accept a justice system with flaws. Do I really understand that there will always be a chance that I will unjustly have my liberty taken away for the sake of the greater good?

Consider every time one rides in a plane. In the back of my mind, I know that there is a small chance, outside of my own control, that the plane will crash and I will die. Still, I take the plane because the utility gained from the travel outweighs the potential cost multiplied by the likelihood of that event occurring.

One of the reasons I may be so complacent in the face of possible death is that I have no control over it and the chance is so small. I can take all precautions to make sure I take only the safest airlines, but in the end, a plane crash is a totally random drawing of the short straw. I have the same chance as anyone else of getting into a plane crash.

The plane crash analogy offers a convenient example because every person has an equal opportunity to fall victim to some freak catastrophe for every independent event. Unfortunately, I do not think our justice system offers each individual an equal opportunity to defend against a false positive conviction.

Imagine two people wrongly accused of the same crime. Both face the same evidence and witnesses, and both with equally strong alibis. In a perfect system, both would be given the same punishment, whether deserved or not. However, in our society, a number of externalities will likely lead to divergent results.


Assuming I am wealthy and I am indicted for a crime, I will be able to hire the best defense team, bring in the best experts, and provide the most expensive evidence to prove my innocence. Indigent defendants are forced to rely on the public defender system to secure representation, and even though public defender programs have made significant progress in recent years, there is often still a large disparity in effectiveness.


While I have confidence in the fairness of the American legal system, I do think that prejudice plays a role in how some jurors approach "beyond a reasonable doubt". As noted by psycho-legal scholars Kassin and Wrightsman, "Jurors are sentimentalists with bleeding hearts. They are gullible creatures, too often driven by emotion and motivated by prejudice, anger, and pity."

Laboratory studies show that in mock juries, race and religious beliefs of the defendant played a significant role in the sentencing decisions of the subjects. Moreover, white jurors were more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant. Other empirical studies have “shown very convincingly that the race of the defendant and the race of the victim inappropriately influenced the level of culpability the jurors ascribed to the defendant.”

I accede that some of this evidence is outdated and social attitudes are continually progressing. I also understand that empirical research shows only correlation and not causation. However, the evidence suggests that the jury's personal attitudes and biases have some sort of effect, even if only minimally, on determinations of guilt and innocence.

Defining Innocence?

The question remains what it means when a jury returns an acquittal. The legal definition of innocence is much different than what one would find in the dictionary. Innocence is not a reflection of universal truth, but a combination of variables unrelated to the crime which culminates in our system either justly or unjustly punishing a citizen.


Webs Webs

r2 - 22 Jun 2010 - 22:32:20 - MikeAbend
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