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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Murder Trials Are Imperfect

     In most murder trials the only person who knows the true story of the crime is the defendant, and then only if he or she is guilty. Circumstantial evidence is suspect, eyewitnesses are unreliable, forensic evidence is only as good as the laboratory that developed it. On the other hand, circumstantial evidence, if properly interpreted, can tell the story of the crime; eyewitnesses can be good observers; and a professionally run forensics laboratory can develop evidence that is trustworthy.

     But these conditions may not be assumed. States' attorneys have been known to be overly zealous in pressing their cases; defense attorneys have been know to be less dedicated, or less competent than desired; and many people have spent years, even decades, in prison before a new circumstance showed that they were wrongly convicted. The introduction of DNA analysis has freed hundreds of people who were shown to have been wrongfully convicted--many on eyewitness testimony. [Also on jailhouse informants and junk science.]

     There is another side to this judicial coin: people who have committed murder and have been tried and found not guilty due to inadequate evidence, incompetent prosecution, a brilliant defense, or a jury not disposed to convict. [The above factors explain the O.J. Simpson acquittal.] This is, perhaps, a shame in the individual case, but it does society little harm in the long run, since no one would commit murder simply in the hope that his or her prosecution would be inept. Murder has the lowest recidivist rate of any major crime. It is much more likely that a mugger or a convenience-store robber will kill someone than it is for a murderer found not guilty to kill again. Society would be more seriously harmed if the popular perception were that citizens were regularly convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Michael Kurland, How to Try a Murder, 2002

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