There is no firm statistic on the number of people sent to prison who were falsely accused and wrongly convicted for crimes which they were innocent.
In today’s society and our criminal justice system in the United States it takes nothing more than the words of one accuser. In contrast under ancient Jewish law found in the Talmud, going back many thousands of years a conviction could not be sustained without the independent testimony of at least two independent witnesses, who could testify independently and consistently as to what they witnessed. Remember the biblical story of Susanna in the Book of Daniel who was accused of adultery by two wicked men because she would not have sex with them. In this story Daniel saves the young girl's life when he requests that the judge questions each of the men separately to hear their story. When the judge asked them what kind of tree did they see the young girl have sex under each of the men gave a different story. Both men were put to death by the judge for perjury and Susanna was set free.
Today, our legal system does not afford this basic protection, under modern law, anybody can accuse anybody of anything and that in the majority of cases is enough probable cause for the police and prosecutors to have someone arrested and stand trial. The single word of a single witness will suffice, and there is rarely, if ever, any penalty or prosecution for perjuroustestimony.
It has been estimated by some that anywhere from five to ten percent of the people convicted of crimes, included people who take pleas, because they are forced to, are actual innocent. Ohio State University did a study and came to the conclusion that approximately ten-thousand people per year in the United States have been wrongly convicted after trial or plead guilty when they were innocent.
Accordingly, it is without argument that the system does fail, and that anyone that believes that the system is without failure simply is ignorant of the truth. Although most jurors understand the importance of applying the reasonable doubt standard, that is, that no juror can vote for conviction unless the prosecutor proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt, some do not understand the true meaning of this very important legal concept. Under the law in every state including federal court, if there is any reasonable doubt, the defendant get’s the benefit of the doubt, and they (the jurors) have the legal and moral obligation to vote not guilty. If in every case this concept was truly accepted and applied properly by the jury there would be less innocent people convicted of crimes that they did not commit.
The concept of reasonable doubt is the only protection that the accused has against a false allegation. The concept of reasonable doubt is more than words, or a theoretical legal concept it is a physical shield to protect all people accused of a crime. The concept of reasonable doubt applies to all faced with criminal prosecution, it does not, or should not, discriminate because of race, religion, gender, ethic background, or financial/community status.
If a jury refuses to accept, or dilutes the reasonable doubt standard the system fails. The doubt as to someone’s guilt can never weigh in favor of the prosecution, since a jury that does that raises the probability that they have participated in a grave injustice, an injustice which is gravely immortal. A jury must understand that the law requires and they must accept that a person may not be innocent, but still not guilty of the crimes charged. In other words a jury is not charged with decided guilt or innocence’s that would be an impossible task for mere mortals. The law requires only that the jury applies the reasonable doubt standard. When the jury gets its verdict sheet at the end of the case while in deliberation, nowhere on that sheet will they see a check off for innocent. The concept and distinction is subtle but very important.
Sadly in recent history we have seen a large proportion of people convicted of sexual crimes based on the sole testimony of the accuser. These types of cases must be examined even more carefully since there is usually no evidence to substantiate the accusers claim, other than the words of the accuser. Motives for such false accusations are numerous and varied and is beyond the topic of this article.
An example of false claims can be found in the accusations against the Catholic clergy. A high proportion of clergy have been falsely charged and wrongly convicted of sexual assault charges in which they were innocent. Because of media hype and yellow journalism many in the press are so happy and eager to publish and endorse the account of the accuser that there is no such thing as unbiased journalism when it comes to covering these types of cases. Following this biased media hype unfortunately juries in criminal cases involving Catholic Priests are to often interested in convicted a Catholic Priest because he is simply a Catholic Priest.
One case is particularly troubling is the false accusation and wrongful conviction of the Catholic Priest Father Gordon MacRae. A summary of this appalling case can be found at:
The concept of reasonable doubt was not applied in this case, and Father MacRae was convicted because he was a Catholic Priest, and tried and convicted before the trial by the media. The accuser in that case committed a massive fraud on the criminal justice system, and every legal scholar who has examined this case has come to the conclusion that Father MacRae was unjustly convicted for crimes in which he did not commit.
The wrongful conviction of Father MacRae must be overturned. Father Gordon MacRae has already served over 26-years in prison in New Hampshire for a crime which he did not commit. Justice for this falsely accused Priest is long overdue.