October 15, 2012, 11:59 am
Stripping people of their liberty or life is one of the most solemn tasks exercised by liberal democracies. Yet, bizarrely, the American criminal-justice system pays too little regard to the factual accuracy of its verdicts.
Consider the steady trickle of exonerations, which occur at a rate few observers would have predicted not long ago. The recently launched National Registry of Exonerations lists the details of 989 exonerees since 1989, and the Innocence Project reports on 300 convicted inmates who have been exonerated based on DNA testing alone. (An additional group of 1,170 defendants have been exonerated in 13 “group exonerations” that followed major police scandals.) No doubt, the actual number of false convictions is much higher.
A stronger sense of the marginalization of truth can be gleaned from the way the criminal-justice system operates. An astounding 95 percent of…