Friday, May 25, 2012


I read a headline the other day which trumpeted the contention that 2,000 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated in the past 23 years. Reading the article, you learn that the researchers had only documented 879 wrongful convictions, but they had added to that number with anecdotal reports from other sources.  The researchers went on to say that far more innocent people were convicted than that. I'm not really sure what their basis is for making that last claim. By stating speculation as fact, the researchers undermine their credibility. It leads one to suspect their objectivity.

Let us accept the number 2,000 for purposes of this discussion.Two thousand seems like quite a large number, but is it really? If you read the article to the end you would have learned that there are approximately 1,000,000 convictions per year in the United States. Over a 23 year period of time, that would make 23,000,000 convictions. This gives us a wrongful conviction rate of 0.0087%, for a 99.9913% chance that a randomly chosen convict is guilty.

Oddly enough, according to, the odds of a duffer hitting a hole-in-one is 0.008%, for a 99.992% chance that a randomly chosen amateur golfer is not going to hit a hole-in-one. Of course, holes-in-one are far more frequent than wrongful convictions, because far more than 1,000,000 rounds of golf are played every year (over 595,000,000 in 2004 according to

According to, at least 4,000 pedestrians per year were killed by automobiles between 1990 and 2009. At that rate, there will be no fewer than 92,000 pedestrian fatalities in 23 years. This means that in the U.S.A., at least 46 pedestrians die for every one person who is wrongfully convicted. This could give you the mistaken impression that being falsely accused of crime is safer than crossing the street.

No system devised and operated by humans is perfect, including the criminal justice system. The possibility of wrongful conviction is why we have such a high standard of proof in criminal trials. The reasonable doubt standard weeds out 99.9913% of those charged with crime who are actually innocent, and it does so at the cost of acquitting large numbers of people who are actually guilty. Taking these factors into consideration places the percentage of wrongful convictions into better perspective than headlines stating that 2,000 convicted felons have been exonerated.

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