When former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese famously pronounced that “you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime,” he apparently voiced a widespread sentiment. The American public seems to believe that most defendants acquitted at trials are actually guilty.
And when notable criminal defense attorneys, such as Alan Dershowitz, reveal that they, too, believe that most defendants are guilty as charged—even though they’ll do their best to get their clients acquitted—it only fuels the public perception that a not-guilty verdict is a legal construct. In other words, criminal defendants who walk free are lucky; they did it, and they got away with it.
Not so fast. A groundbreaking, enlightening, and often troubling new book by two Northeastern professors shreds the perception that innocent people are rarely charged, and that acquittals are the result of jury error or sentiment. About one in five defendants who go to trial are, in fact, actually innocent—although they will carry the heavy perception of guilt even if they are acquitted, affecting their jobs and reputations. So find Daniel Givelber, a professor of at Northeastern’s School of Law, where he was dean from 1984 to 1993, and a founding member of the New England Innocence Project, and Amy Farrell, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, in Not Guilty: Are the Acquitted Innocent?
Not Guilty is the first book in nearly 50 years to examine the phenomenon of criminal acquittals. In clear prose and with plenty of supporting statistics, the authors examine the relationship between acquittals and actual innocence and a range of related issues, including racial bias among juries and judges.
Social scientists have largely ignored acquittals, in part because they are rare and so little data exists about them. In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of crimes are resolved through plea bargains. Only 3 percent of criminal cases are resolved through a trial in which a judge or jury issues a verdict—and only one-third of those result in acquittals.
Givelber and Farrell meticulously analyze data from the National Center for State Courts on more than 400 felony criminal trials in four major urban areas. They reach fascinating and important conclusions that should have major implications for our criminal justice system.
Most important, and most heartening, is that juries get it right most of the time, including when they acquit. Indeed, juries are better at determining actual innocence than judges are. And in a surprising but critically important finding, they’re far less influenced by racial bias, the authors determine.
Not Guilty steps into a void of misunderstanding and misapprehension with hard data and clear analysis to show that, Meese’s exhortation to the contrary, innocent people are charged with crimes. The good news is: If they are brave enough to withstand the pressure to plea bargain, there’s a very good chance that the common sense, wisdom, and decency of the jurors will set them free.
Elaine McArdle is a freelance writer based in New Mexico.
Not Guilty: Are the Acquitted Innocent? (New York University Press, 2013), by Daniel Givelber and Amy Farrell. Professor Givelber is an expert in criminal law, criminal procedure, and capital punishment. Assistant Professor Farrell’s research focuses on the administration of justice.