Tuesday, February 26, 2002

What I believe to be an alternately misleading and just plain wrong letter in the LA Times today:

Myths Aside, Death Row Isn't Filled With Innocents

The recent conventional wisdom presumption that the nation's death rows are packed with innocent men and women is dead wrong …. It turns out, however, that the states with the highest reversal rates are also among the states that seek the death penalty the least and spend the most defending accused murderers ….
Most (death penalty reversals in Oregon) were for "faulty jury instructions" or other hyper-procedural errors ….

Well, of course the states with the highest reversal rates are those that spend the most defending accused murderers. If you accuse and convict someone of murder, and then spend nothing to defend him or appeal a conviction, it’s a pretty good bet that there won’t be a reversal.

And why does Mr. Marquis think that “faulty jury instructions” to the jurors who vote to convict are not related to actual innocence. For example, it’s been my experience that most people don’t understand that, should they become jurors, they need to make a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict. Rather, it seems that most people use the standard of “well, whatever evidence is easy for the state to present has to be good enough to get a conviction, otherwise all criminals will go free.” If jurors are not properly disabused of their incorrect ideas, and convict when the law says they shouldn’t, it is proper for us to act as if the convicted was really guilty?

Marquis goes on to praise a bill that would “restrict DNA testing to those for whom tests could establish innocence.” Yes, that’s probably the efficient thing to do, and it would probably threaten DA records as little as possible. If the purpose of our system of justice is only to protect DAs, then we should restrict DNA testing. I, on the other hand, believe that our system of justice exists to punish only those for whom guilt is certain beyond a reasonable doubt. If new technology or evidence is likely to throw a reasonable doubt on a conviction, then the convict should get a new trial. If we, the people, make a mistaken conviction because we couldn’t know any better, that might be forgivable. If we continue to uphold a mistaken conviction because we just don’t want to be bothered to find out an easily-verifiable fact, then we are guilty of at least false arrest, and possibly murder.

Marquis’s last paragraph says it all, from his point of view:
“We have far more to fear from guilty people wrongly freed by the courts than from that tiny number wrongfully imprisoned and the even smaller number of them who actually are innocent.”

Does the justice system exist only to decrease our fears, or does it exist to punish / deter / remove criminals? When we imprison innocent men only to assuage our fear of crime, we won’t actually reduce crime, though DAs will trumpet that imprisonment as a reason to feel safe. To the extent that imprisonment works at all, it works only if we ACTUALLY IMPRISON THE RIGHT PEOPLE, and not simply close cases because it’s convenient to do so.

Well, you know the title of the blog. If there’s anyone who wants to help me make sense of this, feel free to email me.

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