It is better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent suffer.
This is basically Blackstone’s formulation of what should be the priorities of a system of criminal law like ours. One of the worst things that our society ever does is lock up an innocent person.
And it happens a lot. This article concludes that the wrongful conviction rate is something between 3 and 5 percent. Even at the low end, that is a disturbing number, especially given the staggering total number of convictions that flow from the American courts every day.
It seems that the powers that be, especially in places like Virginia, seem to prefer the inverse of Blackstone’s formulation. Attributed to more authoritarian individuals from history, the inverse would see 10 innocents suffer so that one guilty person may be punished.
Which may be exactly what happened in the Bennett Barbour case. A few days ago the RTD reported that a convicted rapist has been charged for the crimes for which Mr. Barbour spent 30-plus years in prison. I have no idea whether the charged individual is guilty of this crime, and I of course will presume his innocence. However, for argument’s sake, I will give the Commonwealth the undeserved benefit of the doubt and count him as the one guilty person in the formulation. Assuming he is guilty and the Commonwealth does not bungle the case, one guilty person will eventually be punished for the terrible crimes of which Barbour was convicted.
In the meantime, unfortunately, it is impossible to know how many people have suffered on account of this injustice. One we can tally for sure is Mr. Barbour. Prison sucks, and I can’t fathom, much less expound upon, his physical and emotional suffering over the last 34 years.
Next, in addition to the wrongfully convicted man himself, we can surely count anyone who ever cared for Mr. Barbour as having suffered in this case. Family and friends watched as their loved one was hauled away for a crime he did not commit and stood powerless as he rotted away in a prison cell.
And while that certainly would get us over the 10-innocent-person mark, there are also the victims who may have suffered at the hands of whoever did commit this crime. That person has been walking free for 34 years. We can’t know for sure if the guilty party has committed crimes in the interim, but the possibility is another frightening aspect of our system of overzealous prosecution and shoddy police work.
Prosecutors and police and those who blindly support their efforts all claim to care about victims. Most of them probably really do. The problem is that they ignore how many extra victims might be created as they ravenously pursue every possible prosecution regardless of the circumstances and the likelihood of guilt or innocence, and in spite of prosecutors’ mythical ethical duty to see that justice is done.