Justice Miscarries

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I've been ignoring the Scott Peterson trial as much as possible. How many hundreds of cases like this occur all the time? Why do they pick this one out and analyze it to death as if we should care about it more than any other? Of course they did it so much that many people turned out to care, but the entertainment circus over this thing has been really sad. Still, it was hard not to catch most of what was said. They repeated it so often, at least once an hour most days. What struck me as so obvious in this case was that they had absolutely nothing on the guy except some relatively suspicious circumstantial evidence and clear proof that he's just a total jerk. I don't know how any of that should be enough to alleviate a reasonable doubt that he killed them. I was never able to be convinced that he did it from what I've heard all along. I wouldn't put it past him. He's completely amoral. Still, that's no proof, not to the level of removing a reasonable doubt. Unless there's something that's been buried by the media, he should never have been convicted.

The fact that they're giving him the death penalty is now going to stand as evidence of how easy it is to get the death penalty, which will support those who want to remove it entirely. The use of such an argument is a baby-bathwater situation, of course, because one decent enough solution to trigger-happy juries is to raise the standards again for applying the death penalty, or rather enforcing them where they're supposed to be. That was supposed to have happened after the Supreme Court temporarily banned capital punishment in the 1970s because of its unequal standards in application, and those were supposed to have been greatly improved by the time they allowed its reinstitution. Compare the O.J. case, though, and it's easy to see that there's still great inequity, at least in the high-profile cases. He got off because he was a famous football player. Peterson didn't because his jury voted with their entrails and not their minds. We also know that the race of the victim affects juries' decisions on whether to institute a capital sentence. With white victims, the chance is much greater (regardless of the race of the convict, which turns out to have little effect either way overall, though some parts of the country lean one way and some lean the other, presumably because of residual racism in some places and P.C. restraint in others).

This is the biggest problem with the American system of peer juries. It's the same problem with Democracy in general. One impartial judge is always preferable to a whole bunch of jurors untrained in how to evaluate evidence or how to recognize bad arguments and appeals to emotion. Christians, of course, believe that there is that one impartial judge, and all will be set right in the end. Unfortunately for us at the moment, we'll have to wait until we die for that. Until then, we'll just have to observe the government wielding its God-ordained sword imperfectly.

12 Comments

This case was the underlying motivation for my beginning the Death Penalty series. My biggest problem is related to biblical requirements for trial, which includea the necessity of witnesses. This case, admitted by all, was entirely circumstantial, not including any direct evidence, which with our modern forensics might be cast as a witness.

In my opinion, there is no way any Christian should support a death penalty case, much less verdict and sentencing, based on circumstantial evidence. I believe it is unconscionable. I will eventually get to all this, probably two or three posts down the road from where I am.

I think you might be creating a false dilemma between "one impartial judge" on the one hand and "whole bunch of jurors untrained in how to evaluate evidence or how to recognize bad arguments and appeals to emotion."

Given that choice, I too would take the former, but in reality the choice is not available. There is no such thing as an impartial judge, at least not on the sinful human level. And a decent attorney ought to be able to help at least a few people on a 12-person jury see a bad argument.

Given the reality of human nature, I'd much rather the prosecutor have to convince 12 different people to convict me than one all-powerful judge who may decide I look just like the older brother who tortured him as a child or something.

I said "one impartial judge", not one judge who might think I look like the older brother who tortured him.

I didn't say we do have any impartial human judges. That was in fact my point and why juries will by their very nature not be fully effective at accomplishing justice. In this case, the attorney was one of the best at his trade, and he didn't convince them not to do something to so obviously contradicts the necessary high standards we need for whether the evidence for conviction was enough for the death penalty.

"bunch of jurors untrained in how to evaluate evidence"

The jurors never make mistakes they only decided on the evidence presented to them. It is the lawyers responsibility to bring out the facts of the case. Yes the rich have better chance of getting reduced sentencing because their lawyers put more efforted into the case.

"I've been ignoring the Scott Peterson trial as much as possible."
How can you criticize the verdict if you did not hear all the witnesses.

There was only circumstantial evidence. The jurors admitted that themselves. My claim was that circumstantial evidence is never enough to convict someone of murder with a capital sentence. Whatever I missed isn't important if the jurors are being honest. You don't have to know anything else about the trial to know that it follows that I'm going to criticize the sentencing.

Jurors never make mistakes? What world are you in? People get convicted of crimes they didn't commit, and people get off for crimes they did commit. This happens regularly. The system is designed to try to limit this as much as possible, and DNA evidence is improving it greatly (and recognizing past mistakes while it's at it). Still, it happens. It's more likely to happen when all the evidence is circumstantial. That's why it's a very bad idea to allow a capital sentence in a trial involving only circumstantial evidence.

You are placing the blame on the jurors. The jurors only judge the evident presented to them. In Houston jurors covicted many persons only to be found out at later time the police lab was putting out false evidents. Was this the jury fault no. The judge at pretrial hearing decides what the jury get to hear from what the two lawyers tell him. Remember the jurors do not get to ask question. Jury can not do any type of of investigation. Jury only decided on what they hear during the trial. Jury have to follow the law in giving coviction. Do not blame the jury for errors by the lawyers and judge. Is our system without error no but we do have safe guards.

I don't know anything about errors by the lawyers or judge. I do know that I think a death sentence is too strong with circumstantial evidence, and the jury did recommend a death sentence based on circumstantial evidence. I'm not sure what principle you're assuming that means that's the fault of the lawyers or judge.

Good post. I have had the exact same thoughts:
"I was never able to be convinced that he did it from what I've heard all along. I wouldn't put it past him. He's completely amoral. Still, that's no proof, not to the level of removing a reasonable doubt. Unless there's something that's been buried by the media, he should never have been convicted.

It scares me that he was convicted and now is sentenced to death. And I'm a conservative, although a complete layperson.

David, it just occurred to me what's going on here. I think I'm saying two different things. The outcome was wrong, given the evidence. One reason for that is that the jury wasn't basing it on what the evidence shows, at least if the jurists' reports on what the evidence is are to be believed.

One reason for that is that juries aren't usually trained in moral philosophy, formal or informal logic, or legal theory. They're usually told what the law is and how it's standardly implemented. They're told what the standard of evidence in such cases tends to be, and sometimes that may be explained too vaguely by a judge but sometimes it's simply just a vague enough concept that people's subjective senses of it can vary widely. In this case, it was apparently a much lower standard than I think should be morally allowable.

I guess I'm bewildered by your response. You seem to be assuming two possibilities if it's a miscarriage of justice -- blame only the jury or blaming only the judge and/or laywers. Two other possibilities suggest themselves. It's possible that both the jury and the lawyers/judges are at fault. It also seems well within the range of possibility that neither party should be blamed but that it's still a miscarriage of justice.

To decide among those options I would at least need to know more about the details of California's standards of conviction in death penalty cases and about the details of standards of assigning the death penalty itself. It would also help to compare that to what the Supreme Court said in the 70s when it removed the ban on capital punishment provided certain standards were maintained.

only circumstantial evidence ?

I, too, didn't follow this case at all closely. I'm not in any position to say whether the evidence available to us or the evidence available to the jury was sufficient to convict or sufficient to impose the death penalty. But surely it's possible for circumstantial evidence to be strong enough to rise to the appropriate levels? Circumstantial seems fully compatible with even incredibly strong. The main thing that cirmustantial evidence is contrasted with is eyewitness testimony, and I think the latter has proven to be, so far from being the best possible evidence, a particularly and particularly dangerously (largely because it's wrongly thought to be so reliable) unreliable type of evidence.

Well, as Bill noted, many who support the death penalty do so because they think God requires it, but God's specific instructions on how to administer it required at least two eyewitnesses. That undermines those people's support of the current system that allows circumstantial evidence to be the sole ground of administering a capital sentence.

In my juror orientation last month, I was told quite firmly that the defense has no obligation whatsoever. If the prosecution does not show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, then the defense need do nothing. The jury should then acquit. It's the prosecution's job to assume the burden of proof. That requires eliminating all reasonably explanations for why the evidence might be consistent with the defendant not committing the crime (e.g. being framed, just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc.). Has that been done?

I realize that I'd be a very uncooperative juror, but I think you have to rule out lots more options than usually happens with circumstantial evidence for a conviction to be justified, particularly when it involves a death penalty.

...but God's specific instructions on how to administer [the death penalty] required at least two eyewitnesses.

Made good sense for a people who lacked our current techniques for evaluating forensic evidence.

I, too, would probably be an uncooperative juror in many trials. In fact, they won't take me. I just get it over with right upfront: I have a little explanation written up of how I've followed very closely, and with great alarm, the accounts of the many convicted of violent crimes who were later proved to be innocent. But I think targetting circumstantial evidence is missing the problem. The problem is convicting on insufficient evidence, but that very often turns out to involve eyewitness testimony, which is so dangerous largely because of our tendency to overestimate its value. (I'd be the "Don't give me that lame eyewitness testimony; I want some really strong & more reliable circumstantial evidence" type of uncooperative juror.)

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