Can you imagine being locked up on death row for a crime you didn’t commit? What would that feel like? Would you be angry? Frustrated? Would you eventually accept your new reality? As each one of your neighbours is marched to the death chamber past your cell, would you become more scared or less? What would you do for twenty-two hours a day in a 12×8 cell with no windows? Who would you reach out to for help? Would your family and friends believe you when you claim innocence? How would you feel when the correctional officers in charge of your care make sarcastic comments about your “innocence”? Have you thought about what your last meal might be? Would you accept a visit from a priest or a rabbi before you were set to die? What would your last words be? Would you be scared? Do you trust the criminal justice system to correct its mistake before it’s too late?
Welcome to Reasonable Doubt. This is a series that I wrote in 2015 about wrongful convictions in America. I’m updating it for my new audience at Patheos because this is a cause that occupies my mind even more so than normalizing atheism. I couldn’t tell you why I’ve been so passionate about it for over a decade, but I have. In all the time I’ve tried to raise awareness for this cause, nothing much has changed. The vast majority of people in developed countries don’t seem to understand just how massive a problem wrongful convictions are. Every once in a while, a short clip of someone being released after spending decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit will appear on y0ur Facebook news feed and your heart will briefly feel heavy for him. You might think his release is evidence that the criminal justice system eventually gets it right. You might find yourself thinking that it’s sad but at least it’s uncommon and for the most part, the justice system works.
Of course, you’d be extraordinarily wrong. The Innocence Project says that at any given moment, as much as 9% of the total prison population of the USA c0uld be doing time for something they didn’t do. That would mean that there are upwards of 200,000 innocent people in prison in the USA. A law professor at the University of Michigan, Samuel Gross, has worked out that as much as 5% of the entire death row population across the USA is innocent. That’s over 130 men and women who could be put to death by the state while being completely innocent.
In this series, I am going to be exploring what reasonable doubt actually means. It’s become an epidemic across many nations with the jury system that jurors simply do not understand what reasonable doubt is. The problem stems from poor education. People selected for juries not only don’t understand what reasonable doubt means, as is made evident by the frequency of terrible verdicts, but they also fail to see the ripple effect one poor verdict has within the entire judicial system. The more often juries come to a decision totally disregarding reasonable doubt, the further the entire justice system crumbles and is rendered all but useless in the prevention of crime and capture of dangerous people.
The mistake people most often make is that reasonable doubt somehow equates to innocence. When verdicts come back to court, they are read as “guilty” or “not guilty” and “not guilty” is often confused in the layman’s mind as “innocent”. However, “not guilty” and “innocent” do not mean the same thing.
Just like arguments for God, the burden of proof is in the hands of the positive claimant, ie. the prosecution. Reasonable doubt exists when the prosecution has not provided enough evidence to prove guilt.
If in the juror’s mind, there is even a 1% chance the defendant did not commit the crime being examined and this is based on a lack of evidence or gaps in the story, you have reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, most people feel an acquittal for that tiny sliver of doubt is, in essence, determining the defendant to be innocent.
To illustrate this in an actual case, I recommend the documentary The Staircase. You can watch it on Netflix. Here is the trailer:
This documentary follows an author who was charged with his wife’s murder. There is more than ample reasonable doubt in this case, no matter how “guilty as f***” some of the YouTube comments say he looks. Looking “guilty as f***” does not count as evidence.
This case had only one correct verdict based on the evidence presented in court and that is not guilty. That’s not to say I believe he is innocent, but the case was definitely not made for his guilt at all. In fact, the prosecution’s case was an absolute joke.
The fact that the jury still found the defendant guilty, speaks volumes to the layman’s understanding of reasonable doubt.
Take into consideration the Innocence Project’s work. They work to exonerate innocent men and women based solely on DNA evidence. They will rarely look at cases that don’t have DNA evidence to be tested. The majority of the cases they work on are cases from pre-DNA times when the police could not test the available materials outside of blood type. Since DNA testing has become easier and more readily available, the Innocence Project has been taking on cases with good DNA samples still held in the evidence for each case.To be clear: The Innocence Project only works on cases with DNA evidence still in possession by the police which has not previously been tested. This is a very small, small percentage of all the cases across the USA. According to the Innocence Project, only 5-10% of cases involve biological evidence that can be tested. Given the fact that so few cases actually meet the criteria of the Innocence Project, they have still exonerated 356 people from serious sentences in the past decade or so. 356 people, when less than ten per cent of all cases meet the Innocence Project’s criteria. This is a shocking and telling number. If 321 people can be proven innocent based on DNA evidence, how many are innocent but can’t be proven so because there was no biological evidence collected for their case?
Here is a fact that should, if you are an American and under the impression you live in a free and just country, make your skin absolutely crawl: The Innocence Project is investigating between 4,000 and 6,000 cases at any given time.
Given that they only take on cases that include available DNA samples to be tested, this number is staggering. If 4,000 to 6,000 cases at any given time are being explored by one organization with limited resources, how many are out there being ignored?
With numbers that big, any American feeling safe from being wrongfully convicted in their lifetime is absolutely deluded. It not only could happen to you, it’s a far scarier and more likely threat than being the victim of a terror attack or contracting Ebola.
In my own experience, dealing with skeptics and atheists, some seem to have a limit to their skepticism. It’s easy to be skeptical about ghosts and vampires and Gods and prophecy, but it’s not as easy to be skeptical about the murder or rape of another human being. Unfortunately, this is where our skepticism is needed most because if we continue to put away innocent people at the rate we do, we can no longer claim to be free and the men and women “fighting for our freedom” overseas are indeed, dying for nought.
It’s very easy to react to a heinous crime with emotion, and throw caution and reason out the window. To want to throw the book at someone because the crime is so horrific is an absolutely normal thing, but it should not be how a justice system works. A justice system should want one thing and one thing only: the prevention of more people becoming victims of crime. Putting away an innocent man not only violates his human rights, but it allows a killer or a rapist to go free. It has been documented in many cases of innocence that the true perpetrator, who remained free, went on to kill and rape more people. Those people who became victims after an innocent man was locked up for their offender’s previous crimes are no longer just victims of the truly guilty man, but also victims of the state, the jury, the prosecution and everyone in between.
The American justice system can, sadly, be whittled down to nothing more than a modern day lynch mob. It is concerned solely with revenge, emotional reactions and “making someone pay”. The odds of a convicted felon being innocent are off the charts and sometimes I feel like it’s beyond me how anyone living within the borders of that country is not absolutely and inconsolably outraged at this fact.
Then, I remember, I didn’t notice or care until a friend of mine was locked up in Ohio. It just never crossed my mind to think about the men and women behind bars until he was there.
It’s my goal with this series to educate a few people who may not understand to the extent this problem actually goes. To teach skeptics who can shoot down an argument for God like nobody’s business, but who have no idea how suspect most guilty verdicts are.
In the coming weeks, I want to explore the different causes of innocent men and women being locked up, such as false confessions, faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science, jailhouse snitches and more. I’ll present each cause with example cases that should if you are a reasonable, logical and rational person, shake you to your core.
In the meantime, consider how Rodney Lincoln must have felt sitting in a prison cell for 36 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Put yourself in Wilburt Jones’ shoes, who spent 50 years in prison for something he didn’t do. Ask yourself how Cameron Todd Willingham felt taking his last breath in front of a crowd of onlookers who wanted him dead for a fatal fire that turned out not to be arson at all.
To make sure you get the series as it’s posted, sub to me using the email subscription form in my sidebar.
In the meantime, you can find further reading here:
- The Innocence Project
- Causes of Wrongful Convictions
- 10,000 Innocent People Convicted Each Year
- Actual Innocence
- Picking Cotton
- The Wrong Men
Image: Licensed to Courtney Heard by Adobe Stock.