The Benefit of Doubt

Which would you find more morally offensive: someone who committed a murder avoids conviction because of a prosecutorial error, or someone innocent of murder is sent to prison for it because of a prosecutorial error?

Expressing a sentiment commonly shared among the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”  I wonder if the leading voices in our society would say the same today.

It is not uncommon to hear of people being exonerated after spending decades of their life in prison. This is due, in no small part, to the tireless efforts of independently funded legal organizations and the advent of DNA testing. Nevertheless, the coverage of these stories by the media and their effect on public discourse has been relatively sparse compared to the outcry elicited by acquittals in courtroom spectacles like the Casey Anthony trial. As it would seem, in our culture when a perceived “bad guy” gets away, we are quick to decry the failures of our legal system. However, when a person is found to have been wrongfully convicted, we are reluctant to identify any wrongdoing in the operations of the court.

According to contemporary research, eyewitness misidentification is the primary reason for the overwhelming majority of wrongful convictions. In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, “All the evidence points rather strikingly to the conclusion that there is almost nothing more convincing to a jury than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’”

The influence of eyewitness testimony is most clearly demonstrated in cases where the witness has no discernible reason for lying. Why would a rape victim deliberately misidentify her assailant? Barring some fantastic and equally improbably scenarios, in all likelihood the vast majority of eyewitnesses whose testimonies have led to wrongful convictions actually believed at the time that what they were saying was true.

Scientists have described several different factors which help account for the prevalence of these eyewitness errors. Among other things, their findings suggest that human memory and our faculty of judgment are far less reliable than we might think. They have also demonstrated that confidence in mistaken judgments increases over time, especially in circumstances common to our judicial process. I suspect that part of the reason for this arises from our reluctance to acknowledge our personal fallibility. Once we have made up our mind about something, we are far more likely to defend our statements and actions when challenged than to admit that we may have been wrong.

For criminal trials in the United States, it is said that guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We typically think of this as a protection for the accused. Surprisingly, however, the original purpose of the standard was to make conviction easier in a judicial system shaped by Christian moral theology. At the time, the operative rule, coined during the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, was “when there are doubts, one must choose the safer path.”  Ironically, the same rationale appears to be used by our public officials who think showing mercy to offenders is an unacceptable risk. Yet, worldly comfort and security was not the primary concern for early Christians. To condemn an innocent person, the medieval church lawyers taught, was “to build yourself a mansion in hell.” For that reason, when juries first began deciding criminal cases, many citizens were reluctant to convict anyone if they could imagine the slightest possibility, however unlikely, that the person was innocent. The “reasonable doubt” instruction was thus introduced to assure hesitant jurors that, as long as their doubts were not “reasonable,” they could safely pass a guilty verdict with a clear conscience.

According to Yale Law professor James Q. Whitman, “jurors today bring relatively few Christian qualms to the process of judgment.” This seems strange given the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in our society (nearly 88% in Louisiana) self-identify as Christian. We might be tempted to account for this discrepancy by making the glib assertion that not everyone who calls themself a Christian really is one. For that to make sense, however, we would have to say that the majority of our neighbors are either liars or they are mistaken (and, presumably, we are not), which would only seem to support Whitman’s contention that, “we have forgotten how morally fearsome the act of judging is. We have allowed ourselves to become people who condemn offenders precisely in the way Saint Augustine said offenders must never be condemned: with ‘passion,’ and most especially with the passion of self-righteousness.”

Many Christians today will openly express what they think about a person or situation, showing little concern for how their words might affect others. Similarly, many contemporary jurors do not feel a sense of personal moral responsibility for the effects of their decision. When they do, research has shown that jurors take more time in rendering judgments and tend to avoid the biases that arise in hasty deliberations. They are also much less inclined to make decisions which they know will negatively impact another person’s life. So, while it is true that we should never be ashamed to testify to our Lord (2 Tim 1:8), we must also remember that if, by our knowledge or actions, we cause the weak to stumble, we sin against Christ (1 Cor 8:11-12). Thus, always being mindful of potential consequences, we should only say “what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

We can and indeed should correct and reprove others at times. We still live in a world full of sinners. However, we who have experienced the grace and mercy of Christ should be quick to repeat the words of Saint Paul: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15); and strive “in humility [to] regard others as better than [ourselves],” never forgetting that “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasure, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another” (Phil 2:3; Tit 3:3). Thus, when we initially think someone requires admonishment, we should not only consider the possibility that we could be wrong, we should indeed hope that we are wrong. For if our suspicions prove correct, it means that someone we know is still enslaved to sin and death; who, having not come to repentance, knows not the abundant joy of God’s redeeming love. Such a discovery is cause for mourning (see 2 Cor 12:20-21). As the 15th century writer Aedigius Bossius put it, “the judge must be brought to punish only in sorrow.”

One of the ways in which Saint James characterizes “wisdom from above” is translated in the NRSV as “willing to yield” (James 3:17). The Greek word (eupeithes) more literally means “easily persuaded” with the implication of being open to reason or willing to listen. Even when we feel sure of our judgments, the prevalence of confident eyewitness misidentifications should remind us why being willing to listen to opposing arguments is wise. “For all of us make many mistakes” (James 3:2).

Since I’m seeking wisdom and want to be mindful to practice what I preach—Can someone explain to me why, in an area filled will self-professed Christians, the news that someone has been wrongfully imprisoned for decades causes little stir, but when a Governor, who says “I believe in second chances and I try hard to be forgiving,” approves the clemency requests of a couple hundred people there is an uproar? Because I am fairly certain that for Christians, especially those who express a desire to see our country return to the beliefs of our “Founding Fathers,” the reaction should be exactly the opposite. “It is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.” Given the dozens of proven cases of wrongful conviction that have come to light in recent years, it seems as though we should be happy to see a few hundred more pardons signed. Can you think of a good reason why a faithful Christian would disagree? I can’t, but I’m willing to listen…



3 Responses to The Benefit of Doubt

  1. Peter:
    Thanks for sharing this. I note from _The Writer’s Almanac_ that today is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday.

  2. I so appreciate this article, i too thought that it was so good of Haley Barbour to be so courageous. I notice a decline in recent years of genuine moral attitudes and beliefs- for instance the cheering of the death of a supposed criminal or even proven criminals. There seems to be a sense that vengence is to be tolerated, even can be righteous. But we don’t really think in our society that much, about anything. I know that i am guilty of a lack of study, lack of knowledge. That is why i so appreciate people like Peter who study and enlighten us through writings like this one.

  3. For those who might be interested in further reading:

    James Q. Whitman’s article on the Origins of Reasonable Doubt is a little long but the introduction and the conclusion are certainly worth reading:

    Some basic information about eyewitness identification:

    Two interesting articles about jurors’s sense of personal moral responsibility in capital cases:

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