Witch-Hunts and Crime Panics in America

44 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2019

See all articles by John Felipe Acevedo

John Felipe Acevedo

University of Alabama - School of Law

Date Written: March 3, 2019


The term witch-hunt has been tossed around by media commentators, policy experts, and even presidents for years — Nixon, Clinton, and Trump each in turn. Accusations of a witch-hunt are used to signal perceived bias, procedural unfairness, and paranoia. This Article argues that drawing simplistic connections between witchcraft trials and unfairness in the criminal justice system severely hampers our understanding of both historical and contemporary events. It obscures the fact that the term witch-hunt is popularly used to describe two very different types of prosecutions that reflect distinct social and legal problems and demand distinct solutions.

On the one hand, witch-hunts target individuals based on their beliefs and are exemplified by the two Red Scares of the early and mid-twentieth century and the persecution of the Quakers in seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay. These are fundamentally distinct from crime panics, which target activity that was already classified as criminal but do so in a way that reveals deep procedural deficiencies in the criminal justice system. Crime panics are exemplified by the Salem witchcraft trials and the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, the ongoing special investigation by Robert Mueller is neither a witch-hunt nor a crime panic. By bringing ongoing criminal law issues into conversation with legal history scholarship on early American witch-hunts, this article clarifies our understanding of the relationship between politics and large-scale criminal investigations, and highlights areas for future reform.

Keywords: Witch-Hunts, Mueller, Criminal Procedure

Suggested Citation

Acevedo, John Felipe, Witch-Hunts and Crime Panics in America (March 3, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3345749 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3345749

John Felipe Acevedo (Contact Author)

University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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