Postgraduates work in progress
Speaker: Lilith Newton
Title: Convicting the innocent for the right reason
Abstract: We don’t want innocent people to be convicted of crimes. We certainly don’t want innocent people to be imprisoned, executed, or otherwise punished for crimes for which they have been convicted. But the kinds of evidence available in criminal trials – eyewitness testimony, DNA samples, and so on – can never establish a defendant’s guilt with absolute certainty. Hence the criminal standard of proof requires that a defendant be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubtfor her conviction to be permissible.
But it is a vexed matter how the beyond reasonable doubt standard is to be interpreted. Philosophers have attempted to provide some clarity to the issue, offering accounts of permissible conviction that appeal to epistemological concepts that are supposedly better understood than the notion of reasonable doubt: knowledge, safety, and sensitivity, to name a few. Many of these accounts are objectivist: they have it that conviction is permissible only if the defendant did, in fact, commit the crime for which she is on trial.
In this paper, I argue against objectivist accounts of permissible conviction. If conviction on the kinds of evidence available in criminal trials is ever permissible, there are possible cases in which convicting an innocent defendant is permissible. I argue that part of what is most valuable in objectivist accounts is the idea that conviction is permissible only when it is for the right reason; but where objectivists argue that this reason is that the defendant is guilty, I argue that the right reason for conviction is that the defendant has been proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is, perhaps surprisingly, a reason to convict that an agent can have when the defendant is innocent.