From today’s mailbag (the correspondent somehow tried to post it to the version of this post that lies on my long-defunct blog on WordPress; he left the name “Michael” and an email address, but the email address failed):
From the standpoint of justice, what matters is whether the factually guilty are found legally guilty, and the factually innocent are found legally not guilty. Other things may not matter to you in your role as lawyer, but they matter in a greater sense for the system of which you are a part.
Look, I know that anyone who has ever watched a single episode of a vile Dick Wolf franchise thinks that makes him an expert on the criminal justice system, but reading the newspaper doesn’t qualify you as a criminal justice expert any more than playing Operation qualifies you as a medical expert.
Non-criminal-defense-lawyer types are as welcome here as anyone else, but let’s agree on these things: that all of us are human; that none of us are omniscient; and that none of us really know what any of the others ultimately deserve.
We’ll call the opposite position — that one or more humans could have enough understanding of the twists and turns of the human soul to correctly mete out Justice — the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom.
Michael’s position relies on the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom in two ways.
First, he assumes that he has Godlike Wisdom so that he can speak “from the standpoint of justice.”
Second, he assumes that the criminal justice system metes out appropriate punishments to those who are found legally guilty. Underlying this assumption is, again, the Fallacy of Godlike Wisdom — only if the legislature (as well as the judge or jury) has enough understanding to correctly mete out justice can we be assured that the punishment fits the crime.
Unless the legislature and the sentencer are infallible and all-wise, there will always be people who, while factually guilty, are punished inappropriately for the things they did.
Whether the factually guilty are convicted and the factually innocent are acquitted isn’t quite so important in light of the imperfectness of the people making and enforcing the laws. We commonly hear, “better X factually guilty people go free than one factually innocent person be convicted,” but isn’t it also better for some number of factually guilty people to go free than for one factually guilty person to be punished excessively?