Leave No Innocent Behind

Judicature, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview

Leave No Innocent Behind


If we are to be faithful to our constitutional heritage, we must make every reasonable effort to correct and prevent the grave injustice of convicting the innocent.

When a person has been accused of committing a crime, the function of the criminal justice system is to answer two distinct questions: (1) Has a crime been committed? and (2) Did the accused commit the crime?

In seeking answers to these questions, the system is guided by the principle that the accused is presumed innocent and the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This principle and the other constitutional safeguards incorporated in the Bill of Rights are the bedrock of the administration of criminal justice, reflecting our founders' agreement with Blackstone that "it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

Today it is undisputed that innocent individuals are incarcerated as a result of convictions obtained in spite of these constitutional safeguards. DNA evidence has established innocence in a growing number of cases. If the founders were alive today, what guidance would they give when informed that the criminal justice system now has a tool to determine if a citizen was wrongfully convicted? Would they advise us to ignore this tool? Would they be convinced by arguments that DNA analysis is too expensive? Or that the need for finality in the criminal justice system is more important than protecting citizens from wrongful convictions? Or that it will be too painful for victims and their families? Or that acknowledging errors committed by our criminal justice system, touted as a model for the world, is too embarrassing? Which argument would convince our founders to permit citizens to languish in a special hell created by their incarceration for crimes they did not commit?

The criminal justice system that poured millions of dollars into securing convictions in these cases should pursue the search for innocents with the same zeal and resources. If our aim is justice, not merely convictions, we should embrace this opportunity to correct grave injustice. It may be costly, painful, and embarrassing, but it is necessary if we are to remain faithful to our constitutional heritage.

Yet, it is not enough that our criminal justice system welcome and assist efforts to discover and release those who have been wrongfully convicted in the past. We must learn from our mistakes to the end of preventing this grave injustice in the future. That is the goal of the program undertaken by AJS to study wrongful convictions that is described in this issue (see page 159).

One of the arguments that some have made in resisting DNA testing of those already convicted is that such testing does not always conclusively establish innocence, and that there was evidence sufficient to carry the state's burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. …

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