Every now and then, CNN and other newsmedia run puff pieces on people who are exonerated of previously convicted crimes, usually through DNA evidence and the work of groups like Innocence Project.
In this one, however, I found something that disturbed me.
Sometimes an Innocence Project client is confirmed to be guilty by DNA evidence, but the group doesn’t make the number of those cases available. Theoretically, If key DNA material in a case is properly preserved, there’s no time limit on revisiting old cases, according to the Innocence Project.
This worries me slightly – I understand that their goal is a reform of the justice system. In many ways I sympathize with their cause, since psychological science has proven time and again that certain longstanding identification techniques (books of “known criminals”, badly arranged lineups) can easily be abused and give false information, and that memory fades and changes over time.
At the same time, the question this passage raises is, is Innocence Project wilfully exaggerating the extent of “wrongful” convictions for their purposes? What other purpose does hiding the record and ratio of guilty/innocent determinations by their DNA testing serve, except that it may come out that most of the people they test are in fact guilty, and that the justice system may be mostly working as it should?
And if they were getting a whole lot of exonerations, wouldn’t they be willing to say, perhaps, that “over 50%” or “over 75%” or even “over 25%” of the people they tested were innocent? Heck, 10% or even 1% (1 in 100) would be a not-inconsequential figure and better evidence for their cause. Instead, they only list “208 exonerated.”
There’s an old rhetorical fallacy from the baloney detection kit known as “Observational Selection” (aka “counting the hits but forgetting the misses”) and I submit today that Innocence Project, in presenting the statistic of “208 exonerated” on their webpage while refusing to tell us how many of their subjects are confirmed guilty, are very guilty of this.
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