Tradeoffs Between Wrongful Convictions and Wrongful Acquittals: Understanding and Avoiding the Risks
58 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2018 Last revised: 11 Sep 2018
Date Written: 2018
This article focuses on trade-offs that inhere in the criminal justice system, tradeoffs neatly encapsulated in Blackstone’s famous ten-to-one ratio of guilty persons who should be allowed escape justice rather than an innocent suffer. Blackstone’s aphorism reminds us not only of the importance of ensuring that innocent persons are not convicted, but also that unbounded protections might unduly interfere with convicting the guilty. In my contribution to a symposium in honor of Professor Michael Risinger, I respond to thoughtful articles written by both Professors Laudan and Zalman and make two main points. First, in Part I, I turn to Professor Laudan’s policy proposal for reducing the number of wrongful acquittals – e.g., lowering the prosecution’s burden of proof at trial for previously-convicted felons to clear and convincing evidence. This proposal is unconstitutional under existing Supreme Court precedents, which interpret the Constitution to require the prosecutor to prove a defendant’s guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And in addition, Laudan has failed to demonstrate that his proposal is cost-beneficial because he has not persuasively articulated a way to weigh the costs of wrongful convictions against those of wrongful acquittals. But I offer a “friendly amendment” to Laudan’s idea. It should be possible to capture almost all of the benefits of his proposal by placing violent felons on extended periods of parole or supervised release – a condition of which would be that they not commit new crimes. Then, when a previously-convicted felon is arrested for a new crime, he could be tried for a parole violation rather than given a new trial. Supreme Court precedent allows parole violations to be tried under a lower burden of proof. Reconfigured in this way, there are strong reasons for thinking that the proposal might well be a cost-beneficial way of reducing wrongful acquittals. In Part II, I challenge Professor Zalman’s claim that he is truly writing from an innocentric perspective. Someone proceeding from this vantage should be willing to endorse a criminal justice reform measure if it meets three criteria: first and most important, it reduces wrongful convictions of the innocent; second, it does not reduce (and ideally would increase) the number of guilty persons convicted; and third, it should not significantly impair any other competing values. With these evaluative criteria in mind, Zalman appears to be a mere fair-weather friend of the innocent, as he does not appear to truly privilege innocence over other competing values. In contrast, my reform proposals (which Zalman is reluctant to endorse) reorient the criminal justice system away from adjudicating procedural issues and toward adjudicating substantive issues of guilt or innocence. The truly innocent will benefit in a system that values substance over procedure – and someone who truly holds an innocentric perspective should endorse reforms that move the criminal justice system in that direction.
Keywords: Wrongful Conviction, Wrongful Acquittal, Burden of Proof, Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice Reform
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