By Dick Luedke
The 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson verdict inspired volumes of media attention on the trial that gripped our nation. As we revisited that chapter of our of history earlier this year, many of us expressed incredulity that a jury of his peers sent Mr. Simpson out of that courtroom and into the bright sunshine of Los Angeles as a free man on that early October day in 1995. Given the evidence presented at that trial, how could the jury have found him innocent?
Of course, the jury did not find Mr. Simpson innocent. It found him not guilty. In order to convict him, the jury would have had to have believed in his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A High Bar
Whether the jury should have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a question I’ll leave for others to ponder. The point I would like to make is that our system of justice places the bar for guilt at a high level. And it is my belief that most of us, if we stop and think about that, agree that it should be high.
The more you tip the scales of justice toward convicting the guilty, the more those scales sometimes convict the innocent. And the more you write the rules to protect the innocent, the more those rules occasionally protect the guilty.
System of Justice as Colander
Think of our system of justice as a colander, the device you use to drain the grease from the ground beef you cook. Our courts drop all of those accused of criminal activity into the colander of justice. The ones that fall through the holes are free. Those whose guilt is larger than the colander’s holes remain in the colander and wind up in jail. So how large should we make the holes in our colander of justice.
In the interest of making sure that those who do not commit crimes do not wind up in jail, we have decided to make the holes relatively large. The maturation of DNA evidence has shown that we have perhaps not made them large enough. We hear countless stories about the wrongfully convicted who spend decades in prison before their innocence is proven.
Absolutes or a Gray Area?
We tend to think in absolutes. A person charged with a crime is either innocent or guilty. We should apologize to the innocent for putting them through the judicial process and we should lock up the guilty. How much easier could it be?
There are two problems with this simplistic approach. Those who are guilty tend not to be forthcoming about their guilt. And some of those who are guilty are able to hire clever attorneys who are masters at producing reasonable doubt while some of those who are not guilty are not able to hire a wily barrister.
And so when we drop the accused into our colander of justice, some of those who are guilty manage to drop through the little holes to freedom and some of those who are not guilty get stuck in the colander.
We can make our colander holes small enough so that that none of the real criminals get through, knowing that more of the innocent will also not make it to freedom. Or we can make the holes big enough to guarantee that all of those who are truly innocent fall through with the knowledge that a lot of the guilty will join them.
Which approach would you prefer?