The Innocence Myth

Judge Morris B. Hoffman has another editorial. After publishing the results of a study in January that showed that defendants with private attorneys got better results than those represented by public defenders, today he publishes an editorial in the WSJ that calls innocence a myth. He opens with:

You must also have somehow managed to avoid the increasingly shrill polemics issuing, daily it seems, from our nation’s law schools and their “innocence projects,” which have spent the last 20 years trying to paint a picture of our criminal justice system so dismal that a rightful conviction seems the exception and not the rule.

Notice the use of quotes around innocence projects. Soon thereafter, he cuts to the chase. He asks about the error rate! ERROR RATE!. He even quotes Blackstone’s Ratio. EyeID tackles this wonderfully:

But back to this WSJ article. Hoffman goes on to inquire about the actual rate of innocence. Maybe, after all, these “innocence advocates” and the “liturgies that have grown up around them” (!) are worshipping a false idol, the WSJ author/judge implies. Apparently out to get these pesky innocence proselytizers, who “are strangely silent when it comes to that question” of the actual innocence rate, Hoffman tries to redirect the dialogue to a question of the error rate, which is what really matters “in imperfect complex systems.” Hoffman appears to imply that if the “error rate” — that is, the rate at which innocent people are incarcerated and in some cases, possibly executed — is within an acceptable range, then the innocence projects — which he belittles as both “mythmakers” and “innocence merchants” — are in a tizzy over nothing.But this brings us back to the Blackstone ratio, and a fundamental clash of worldviews that I think is at the heart of this disagreement. 200 innocent people incarcerated for a combined total of 2,475 years in prison is not an “acceptable error rate,” no matter the ratio of wrongfully convicted to “rightfully” convicted. And obviously the work of the Cardozo Innocence Project, and the battalions of others committed to the same cause, do not represent the entirety of the problem. Other innocents remain in prison, and new innocents continue to be put in prison.

The “mythmakers” are silent on the question of the “actual innocence rate” because the problem of innocent people being deprived of their liberty is not a statistical problem; it is a moral problem. This is exactly what Ben Franklin meant when he said that “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”: human liberty is not reducible to a mundane statistical formulation. Innocence advocates are silent on the question of the actual innocence rate not because they fear the answer, but because it is fundamentally the wrong question.

Sacre bleu!

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2 thoughts on “The Innocence Myth

  1. Pingback: A brief history of skepticism - a public defender -

  2. Ed

    “Actual Guilt” is not required to deprive someone of their freedom. Only guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

    LIBERTY is the PROTECTION OF THE LAW. It is an inalienable Right that even those imprisoned possess.

    The number of people in prison, or otherwise deprived of the Freedom others enjoy, for crimes they did not commit is HUGE.

    The “error rate” must include EVERY “error” in the process. That is every violation of LAW in the phrase “due process OF LAW”. The process has become LAWLESS. People are routinely subjected to “process’ with little regard for the “Law” by Judges who consider it “error” to allow anyone accused of committing a crime to remain a “free person”.

    ONE formal accusation, today, means a person is reduced to the life of a SLAVE. They have a permenant record that will forever be used to deprive them of the EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAW.


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