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Monday, July 11, 2011

Beyond a reasonable doubt - the way it should be

Criminal juries in the United States are asked whether the prosecution has proved a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This approach to justice is a balance. Our system should not convict persons who are innocent, nor should it free persons who did perpetrate crimes. These two objectives, however, are not symmetric. Given the consequences of convicting the innocent, we set a high standard to prove guilt -- although we do not set the standard so high that the obviously guilty would walk free from court on a frequent basis. 

The furor about Caylee and Casey Anthony leaves me puzzled. A jury of twelve found unanimously that the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof. They reached that conclusion rather quickly. Was justice served? From the perspective of the system, it certainly was. In a country founded on freedom, we don't throw someone in jail based on a lesser standard of guilt such as preponderance of the evidence -- and definitely not for a general feeling that "he (or she) did it". The founders of this nation fought, and some died, to establish the conservative legal system we enjoy today compared to a more capricious and arbitrary system, under which they had lived, that jailed people undeservedly on a regular basis. This is a fundamental lesson of American history, civics, and philosophy that we must not forget. 

Do perpetrators occasionally go free? Sure. Look at O.J. Simpson. On the day of the closing arguments in his criminal trial, I happened to be in California on business. I was driving down US 101 in Silicon Valley listening to Johnnie Cochran's closing statement live on radio. He absolutely demolished the prosecution's case, and from that instant I knew that Simpson would walk free. (The jury took only about four hours to reach that conclusion.) However, I was also quite certain that Simpson had, in fact, committed homicide.

But at least three persons in North Carolina -- Darryl Hunt, Alan Gell, and most recently Greg Taylor -- have been exonerated after serving long prison sentences for false guilty verdicts. Instead of the shock of Casey Anthony's apparently unfair acquittal, citizens should be much more in uproar over the shock of false convictions. Casey Anthony's life will never be the same. Unfortunately, I can say likewise for Greg Taylor.

As for Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell of HLN, f/k/a Headline News Network and  CNN2 at launch, I have nothing but contempt. They make profit by fanning flames.