Tuesday, October 15, 2013
During criminal trials, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence, the burden of proof is on the government, and the standard of proof it must meet — beyond a reasonable doubt — is exacting. This "proof structure" of trials is usually justified with an error distribution rationale. Yet there are well-known difficulties in establishing the optimal ratio of errors of false conviction to errors of false acquittals and with determining whether the proof structure enables us to obtain that ratio over a sufficiently lengthy run of cases. According to an alternative justification of the proof structure, individuals have a second-order moral right to demand rigorous, independent evaluations of the evidence that they have committed crimes before their primary moral rights are curtailed by legal punishment. The proof structure of criminal trials is one way to honor this right. Various objections to this defense of the proof structure are considered.