September 22, 2011
Here is a secret well-known among attorneys: By the time a criminal is convicted, he has usually committed at least three other serious crimes. Here is a secret well-known among policemen: They are almost always sure who did it, even if they cannot prove the case. Here is something not so secret: An exception proves the rule.
It is true there are innocent people in jail and death-row inmates who did not commit the charged crime. Police are sometimes wrong in their suspicions. Yet all of these truisms are in the minority when compared to the whole. If someone is on death row, they almost without exception did the deed.
Everyone in America receives several second chances. If one happens to be a criminal, these are multiplied manifold. In most cases, one need commit a particularly abhorrent act before first-time jail accrues. Still there are those who bemoan the perpetrators’ lot, at least until they themselves fall victim.
One of the old saws of such Solons is that (nasal-pitch necessitated) “We would rather have ten guilty men go free than convict one innocent!” This maxim originates not as popularly believed with Cotton Mather, but from his father, Increase Mather, who sat in Salem. The real quote: “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.” Given such logic, no one should ever be convicted since there are no such things as witches. One wishes such were true of more dastardly offenses.
“If someone is on death row, they almost without exception did the deed.”
During the middle 1980s to the middle 1990s there was an absurd satanic-cult hysteria which gripped law-enforcement outlets across America, leading to outrageous verdicts from people who ought to have known better. This included California’s fraudulent Kern County child-abuse cases and the recent release of the West Memphis Three. In each there was far more reasonable doubt than common sense. Whenever a prosecutorial case rests on otherworldly intervention, a jury should step far away for an unbiased examination.
Collective punishment is committed all the time without comment. The treatment of postwar Germany (and current-war Iraq), middle-class college students applying to the Ivy League, and contemporary affirmative-action policies are all examples. Somehow, only when it involves cop-killers are we to take umbrage.
It is argued that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, because 30% of the time eyewitnesses are incorrect in their identifications. This is one reason few cases should rest solely on such evidence. But this still means an eyewitness is correct two-thirds of the time. Multiple eyewitness accounts only enhance this reliability.
So comes the hysteria over one Troy Davis, who killed a police officer—or not, depending upon whom one believes. Seven of nine eyewitnesses have now recanted their testimony. But one gives testimony under oath and recants without consequence. The former is therefore by definition more reliable. There are still two witnesses who state Davis pulled the trigger. Even if he didn’t, he was still a no-account thug fighting with police and others in the middle of the night, causing more than one person to get shot and an officer’s death.
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