How Skepticism Could Improve The Criminal Justice System

How Skepticism Could Improve The Criminal Justice System June 5, 2018

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. Read other parts in this series here:

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.

Read other parts in this series here:

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:

    1. The Innocence Project
    2. Causes of Wrongful Convictions
    3. 10,000 Innocent People Convicted Each Year
    4. Actual Innocence
    5. Picking Cotton
    6. The Wrong Men

If you like what I do here and want to support my work, you can donate here or become a patron here.

Image: Licensed to Courtney Heard by Adobe Stock

"I, like you, think there's probably more to this story than has been presented. Cuz ..."

CBC Reports Atheist Parents Are Making ..."
"... and interesting extension of the question would to ask - what would you do ..."

How Religion Can Strip You Of ..."
"Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.You, "sir" are a delusional and egotistical, evidence and logic devoid fantasist.Thank you for keeping ..."

9 Ways Atheists Get More Joy ..."
"no sir, you are the ignorant here. you don't even read what I write. again, ..."

9 Ways Atheists Get More Joy ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Priya Lynn

    Thank you for this. I hope this important information is as widely read as possible.

  • I hope so, too!

  • Jim Jones

    > 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.

    The bigger problem is that many jurors don’t understand logical reasoning and imagine they are asked for their opinions or ‘feelings’ about the accused.

       As they made their first pass around the room and took a straw poll, it became clear the majority of the jury had already seen and heard enough. They voted eight to four to convict. A dead girl and a black defendant was enough for several of them.
       “There were some openly prejudiced, openly bigoted people,” Bartolotta said. “There was one woman who kept saying things like, ‘Well, they all look alike.’ ”
       Two other jurors, Bartolotta said, “lacked the intel­ligence to discuss anything rationally. They just thought Evans had to be guilty because he was there in court.”
       Even the lone black male juror thought Michael Evans was guilty. After the initial straw poll, two more jurors, eager to get the whole thing over with, switched over.

    From a new book, “Anatomy of Innocence”. This was the ‘jury’ an innocent man was judged by. The entire case depended on a ‘witness’ who repeatedly changed her story and, it turned out, was handsomely paid for her inventive ‘testimony’, something withheld from the defense.

  • Steve Williams

    I can’t imagine spending one day in prison let alone ten years for something I didn’t do. I’m very much in the “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” camp. There are many suicides in prison; people assume it’s because of their guilt, perhaps in some cases it’s because of their innocence.

    We obviously have the same problems with juries here in the UK.

    Link – Article from the British Independent newspaper

    Juries also tend to rely greatly on expert witness testimony. I’ve seen cases where five different psychiatrists are asked to provide diagnoses of a defendant and they give five different ones.

    Quote from above article –

    In a case currently at the CCRC (Criminal Cases Review Commission), prosecution evidence turned on the lip-reading testimony of an expert witness who interpreted what was being said in a silent video. During a review of the evidence, it was discovered the video had sound. An ensuing transcription of the conversation bore no resemblance to what the expert witness had claimed.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’ve heard that lawyers for both sides try to keep intelligent well educated people off juries, because they are less easily manipulated by the lawyers.
    Also that the lawyers have considerable ability to reject prospective jurors for no given reason.
    Does anyone know how accurate that is?

  • anxionnat

    Several years ago, I was called for jury duty. It was a case in which a guy was accused of running an illegal meth lab. The court had called maybe 150 people. Long story short, another woman and I were “excused”, a nice way of saying “You don’t meet our criteria (not stated), so bye.” Turns out the other woman was a veterinarian. I was in grad school in Biology. We talked afterwards. It was pretty clear that we’d both been excused because of (1) our biological knowledge, and (2) the defense attorney thought we were, as scientists, up on the latest research on illegal drugs. (Neither of these reasons were overt.) The *real* reason we had been excused, we agreed, was that people in the sciences get very good at generating hypotheses. We work with multiple hypotheses that don’t always fit into “yes” or “no” boxes. Faculty in med school, vet school, and in the sciences would be considered negligent if they didn’t teach their students that way of thinking. Between the two of us, the veterinarian and I came up with several hypotheses that weren’t “guilty” or “not guilty” between the time we’d left the courtroom and the time we got to the parking lot. Just recently, my sister who has a BS in Physics, got rejected for what was most likely the same reason. When I was an undergrad I got rejected because the prosecution was getting rid of anyone under 30. (It was a pot case.) So, yeah, I think you’re right that well-educated people are not valued in juries. In the first case I mentioned, spouses and children of cops made up over half of the jurors. They were supposed to have “no conflict of interest!”

  • Steve Williams

    The process in the UK is as follows –

    Those whose knowledge of the law is drawn from US courtroom dramas – both fictional and real – may be surprised to find that juries are not cross-examined to assess their suitability. Once selected, jurors are obliged to participate unless they can provide compelling evidence why serving would be inconvenient. […] No-one serving on a jury is supposed to have any connection to anyone involved in the case.

    Those summoned for jury service and had the summons confirmed are legally obliged to participate. The pool from which people have been selected comprises of people randomly selected by the Jury Central Summoning Bureau from the electoral register.

    Quotes from BBC website

  • Jim Jones

    > We obviously have the same problems with juries here in the UK.

    Check out your jury pool.

    https://notalwaysright.com/

    No wonder criminals prefer to do deals.

  • Steve Williams

    Some of those are very, very funny. I’ve spent quite a few hours going through them.

    Did you hear about the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ contestant who, after 50/50, Phone a friend and Ask the audience, still insisted an elephant was bigger than the moon? And they’re allowed to breed.

  • I’ll have to check that book out. Thanks!

  • Jim Jones

    Some public libraries have it.

  • Otto

    Lawyers on both side can excuse potential jurors for cause and they typically also get a number of wild-card exemptions where they can excuse jurors without stating why, the number can vary depending on the jurisdiction, etc.

  • Otto

    This is an important topic, I applaud you for taking it up.

  • Rennyrij

    Thank you for the corroboration of my stance in a “minor” jury trial of a person accused of the theft of a cash register (and the money in it). This took place many, many years ago. The accused had somewhat of a record and reputation. The “evidence presented” was a policeman’s account of a snowy footprint trail that led between the person’s car and the business from which the said cash register had been removed, and included snowy footprints inside the building. The police were called by the victim, and they responded. The police stated in Court that they’d seen the footprints in the building, possibly matching the accused’s shoes. However, they had failed to bring a camera – and the footprints melted before they could be photographed!

    As a juror, I saw no solid evidence, and I managed to convince the other jurors by saying, “Would you want YOUR kid judged on this evidence? If this person is guilty, he’ll most probably try it again, and he’ll get caught, so don’t worry about him getting away with anything”.

    Now, what triggered my otherwise non-confrontational temper, and what makes me respond to this article now, was this pair of facts: the theft took place right across the street from the police station, where the police view of the crime, if they’d chosen to look out the window, was practically unimpeded, (how embarrassing!) and (this is the real trigger) in the courtroom, the prosecutions’ desk was right below the jury box. The accusing policeman, standing there, muttered under his breath, but clearly meant for some of the jury to hear, “the police are not on trial here”. WHOA, NELLY! The police, and their collection of evidence, are ALWAYS on trial – that’s what these proceedings are about! So I spoke up, in the jury room. While I’m fairly sure the person was guilty as charged, there was plenty of “reasonable doubt”, because the prosecution’s arguments amounted to little more than “hearsay”. Without a photograph of those footprints to compare to the accused’s shoes, they had nothing.

    This is the Point – the police, and their collection of evidence, are always – ALWAYS – on trial.

  • Thank you, Otto. I agree, it’s very important.

  • Well said and well done! I applaud your efforts to uphold the intended standards of the justice system.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    GW1: Thank you, Courtney Heard, for this fine essay. I agree with most of your points.

    CH1: 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.

    GW1: This can be viewed as a “false positive rate” (judged guilty when not), something we should of course wish to minimize. However, there is also a “false negative rate” (judged not guilty when guilty, or not even accused when guilty) and we should be just as concerned about that.

    CH1: 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.

    GW1: Sometimes I think it might be better to go to a professional jury system in our country. The jury pool would consist of persons with above average intelligence, given special training in the law and evidence, relatively unbiased, and paid a salary for their work for perhaps a term of four years. After all, the goal is to get a correct verdict.

    CH1: 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.

    GW1: So God has not been proven guilty of existing beyond a reasonable doubt.

    CH1: 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.

    GW1: Where did you get that 1%? Is that in the law or in court decisions? I think that the percentage attached to reasonable doubt deserves additional discussion and debate.

    CH1: To illustrate this in an actual case, I recommend the documentary The Staircase. You can watch it on Netflix.

    GW1: Sounds interesting. I’ll check it out.

    CH1: The fact that the jury still found the defendant guilty, speaks volumes to the layman’s understanding of reasonable doubt.

    GW1: Or perhaps lack of understanding.

    CH1: Putting away an innocent man not only violates his human rights, but it allows a killer or a rapist to go free.

    GW1: So every case of a false positive is also a case of a false negative.

    CH1: 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”.

    GW1: I think this is hyperbole. Keep in mind that if 9% are false positives, then 91% are true positives. So, the system is working better than a lynch mob.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Those who claim to be lip readers should be tested for accuracy and their accuracy rates presented to juries.

  • Steve Williams

    Good idea. I wonder why it’s not already standard practice.