Should Convictions Be Hard To Get?

Harlem Holds Vigil For Trayvon Martin

Wilkinson thinks so:

In Texas you can get away with shooting someone to death if they’re running away with your property. That’s insane, and it’s easy to see how a law like that rigs the system in favour of people with a lot of property—a class that remains disproportionately white and male. However, on the whole, our criminal-justice system is so frightfully racist because it’s too easy for prosecutors, not because it’s too hard. Of course, in a racist society, rules that help defendants are going to help the most privileged defendants the most, and that’s maddening. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that the least privileged, the most oppressed, the most discriminated against, are far and away most likely to stand accused. That’s why I suspect that a legal system making it harder for the likes of Mr Zimmerman to get away with it would be a system of even more outrageous racial inequity.

Cass Sunstein has a different view:

Reasonable doubt is far more difficult to meet than other legal standards, including “preponderance of the evidence” (used for most civil trials), “clear and convincing evidence” (used for deportation proceedings) and “substantial evidence” (used for administrative agency decisions). To be sure, any doubt must be “reasonable”; the law doesn’t require absolute certainty. But a good defense lawyer is often able to obtain an acquittal even if most jurors essentially agree with the prosecution’s account of the facts.

Among other things, the Zimmerman verdict shines a bright spotlight on the reasonable-doubt standard. Lord Blackstone famously said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” and most people think the reasonable-doubt standard reflects a judgment to that effect.

But that judgment isn’t self-evidently correct. If 10 guilty people escape punishment, then the deterrent effect of the criminal law will be significantly weakened, and wrongdoers will be set free to do more wrong, potentially putting innocent lives in jeopardy.

(Photo: Candida Feliz participates in a candle lit vigil for Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot and killed in Florida last year, on July 15, 2013 in New York City. By Andrew Burton/Getty Images.)