False convictions and death row inmates

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown but unknowable. We use survival analysis to model this effect, and estimate that if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least 4.1% would be exonerated. We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States.

Sara Reardon, New Scientist:

The review follows numerous investigations that have cast doubt on the validity of most forensic methods. Firearms and bullet analysis, for instance, can wrongly place innocent people at a crime scene.

In a strongly worded 2009 report, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said that with the exception of nuclear DNA evidence, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual”. But even DNA evidence is fallible: different labs can return very different results for the same sample.

Click the headline for the full article.

FBI forensic review could free thousands of prisoners - science-in-society - 12 July 2012 - New Scientist

Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice in America : The New Yorker

Adam Gopnik describing the ideas of Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz:

In a society where Constitution worship is still a requisite on right and left alike, Stuntz startlingly suggests that the Bill of Rights is a terrible document with which to start a justice system—much inferior to the exactly contemporary French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson, he points out, may have helped shape while his protégé Madison was writing ours.

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice.

This brings up to me a cherished thesis that a lot of 20th century formal efforts are conscious or unconscious descendants of Russell’s logicist programme, but unperturbed by the limit imposed by Church/Gödel. The incompleteness result has been much abused, so I need to advertise or defend such a thesis with some care, rather than as a throw away reference. But here it is, anyway.