All posts by GB

I campaign for the wrongly convicted.

Complex problems

A long trial, intended to establish a truth about the natural world “beyond a reasonable doubt” may be a complex problem.

By “complex problem” I mean some kind of puzzle where you need to be quite organised to keep a large number of details under control, where the solution is not obvious, where a problem needs to be broken down into smaller components, and each component needs to be carefully examined and considered separately. We have to do this with large problems, because the human brain simply cannot think about very many bits of information at one time.

Most people, in most jobs, will never or hardly ever encounter complex problems they are required to solve. I am not sure what you should call the required skill, perhaps analytical skill, although I am not sure that captures it.

This skill is needed in mathematics, where the proof of a non-trivial mathematical theorem has to be constructed from “lemmas” (which are minor theorems used during the proof construction ).

Mathematics  is similar to justice in that proof is the central concept, although of course mathematical proof has a different kind of certainty to it – mathematical certainty rather than legal certainty, which is usually built around the somewhat fuzzy concept of “reasonable doubt”, which is more akin to probability theory* than mathematical certainty.

But although mathematical proof is different to legal proof, there are still similar errors that can be made. False assumptions, clerical errors and errors that arise from our imperfect understanding of the extremely complex natural world, including human behaviour.

Analytical skill is also needed in engineering and computer programming. For example, software to control a large aircraft needs to be broken down into small components, there may be many thousands of such components in a large project.

People with very good “analytical skills” (for want of a better word) may be quite rare, and rarer still in jury pools where employers of people with very good analytical skills may be reluctant to release employees for long periods of time.

So there is a strong chance of serious error when a group of unskilled people are asked to analyse a complex problem.

There is no way to independently test if the jury solution to a criminal problem is correct. While aircraft can be carefully tested, to see if the solution works, there is no way to test the verdict of a jury. If it is wrong, the error may take decades to discover, or the error may never be discovered ( at least in a court of law ).

This could perhaps help explain why there are many wrongful convictions.

* It is reasonable to view the job of a juror as calculating a probability of innocence ( while incorporating uncertainties about the calculation itself into their reasoning in a conservative way ). A typical jury instruction would state “If you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him/her guilty”. If a juror concludes the probability of innocence is very small, say less than 1% then it would be reasonable and rational to be “firmly convinced” of guilt, even though the required level of certainty is never made explicit in jury instructions, it is left to the personal interpretation of each juror.



Inductive reasoning and confirmation bias

In a criminal trial, the prosecution may offer circumstantial evidence which is less than conclusive, and suggest that an innocent explanation is unlikely, even though an innocent explanation is quite reasonable, and is not excluded by reliable evidence

People sometimes say “I don’t believe in coincidences”. The universe of potential suspicious circumstances may be very large, and we often cannot even say if a coincidence is likely or unlikely.

This is “inductive reasoning”. From the wikipedia article on inductive reasoning:

“As with deductive arguments, biases can distort the proper application of inductive argument, thereby preventing the reasoner from forming the most logical conclusion based on the clues. Examples of these biases include the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, and the predictable-world bias.”

Confirmation bias may set in when inductive arguments are made (whether implicitly as evidence is presented, or explicitly in closing arguments), and evidence that shows the prosecution case is improbable may be ignored as a result of confirmation bias.

I believe wrongful convictions can easily occur when ambiguous evidence is presented. It is quite natural for jurors to reason inductively, as inductive reasoning often produces good results, even though it is not reliable.

Prior Discussion which led to this post.



The Guilt of Scott Peterson: When You’re 50% Sure You Were 100% Right

For the past couple months, I’ve had a feeling of guilt over presuming someone else’s guilt.

This started 15 years ago back when I was the new morning guy at KHOP in Modesto, California. You probably don’t know much about Modesto. If the small city’s name does ring a bell, there’s a 99% chance it’s because you remember the story of the horrendous murder of Laci Peterson. The only thing you could possibly otherwise know it for is it was the setting for the movie American Graffiti. But you’re probably not old enough to remember that movie. I’m not. And I’m old.

My time in Modesto was too long. The people were nice. Really nice. Generous, kind, down to earth hard working people. But the city itself was brutally dull. I have two prominent memories of life in Modesto. A nearly constant breathtaking sour odor of cow manure on the…

View original post 1,029 more words

The truth about the US justice system

I think many people think the US justice system has safeguards and is designed to protect the rights of innocent people.

Superficially that’s true, but it’s administered by politicians who can bend the rules whenever it suits them, and make judgements that defy common sense but which are not “unconstitutional” (so not subject to Federal challenge).

So in practice, wrongful convictions are commonplace, in serious cases perhaps 4% of accused people are innocent. Solving serious crimes is a tricky business, and there are going to be lots of mistakes.

Prosecutors with a weak case like the death penalty, because

(a) It allows them to appeal to juror emotions more strongly. There is a stronger presumption of guilt.

(b) It slows the entire process down, so by the time the truth is revealed (if it is ever revealed), the prosecutor has probably moved on and is now a judge or in private practice, or retired or dead.

A criminal justice system is a necessity, but society should recognise that convictions are not and cannot ever be certain, however much a jury is exhorted to respect the principle of reasonable doubt. People can be easily fooled, it is human nature.

So it is inevitable that there will be wrongful convictions. What is wrong is to suggest that wrongful convictions do not and will not happen, and to have extreme sentences that are unnecessary and serve no useful purpose for society.


Nonsensical prosecution cases that don’t add up.

(1) Jodi Arias plans a murder in which she takes selfies of herself committing the crime.

(2) Scott Peterson plans a murder, in which he disposes of the body in broad daylight, and then tells the police  where he disposed of the body.

(3) David Temple plans to murder his pregnant wife with a shotgun at 4:10 p.m. in an upstairs room, hoping nobody will hear the shot or notice his vehicle or him leaving the scene.

(4) Justin Ross Harris murders his son, and while doing so, is sexting underage women, an offense for which he is sentenced to 10 years in prison.

(5) Jason Sadowski duct-tapes two women to poles, tortures them, then unties one of them and let’s her call the police on a mobile phone ( also leaves the building, so they are free to leave, no locked doors ).

(6) Darlie Routier murders her sons, with her husband in the house, and rushes outside to plant a sock in an alley-way hoping he won’t come down in the meantime. She then sets about a complex staging of the scene involving nearly killing herself.

(7) Angelika Graswald  murders her fiance by removing a tiny plug on the top of his Kayak, even though the amount of water that can come in due to bad weather there is minimal compared to the amount coming through the large opening where he sits.

(8) Debra Milke murders her son because “she didn’t want him to grow up to be like” his father.

Discussion here

Could you be wrong

This is a question I wish jurors would ask themselves more often.

What I think is often missed, is that if you pick a random person out of a telephone directory, the odds are very high than they are not someone capable of heinous murder.

In any homicide investigation, there are two questions to be considered:

(1) Was it some kind of accident or self-defense, or is it murder.

(2) If it’s murder, who did it.

The first question may sometimes seem trivial, but it’s not. Any number of wrongful convictions arise from situations where an accident or self-defense killing is mistaken for murder.

Unfortunately people are far too easily persuaded there is a crime on uncertain evidence, and forget how unlikely it is that an accused person is guilty, especially when there is no apparent motive for an alleged crime, and the accused has no notable record of physical violence towards others.

Uncertain evidence comes in two varieties:

(1) The evidence itself is uncertain : the source is not reliable, or a mistake may plausibly have occurred. An example is making inferences from an absence of evidence, or eyewitness identifications, which are notoriously unreliable. Or a statement made by a person with a motive to lie.

(2) The inference is uncertain : there is an innocent explanation that cannot be ruled out.

I wish jurors would not vote guilty on uncertain evidence, especially when the innocent explanation is far more probable.

And that’s the memo.


Ross Harris and Criminal Negligence

It’s my current belief that the State has so far failed to prove that Justin Ross Harris intended for his son to suffer or die, indeed the evidence suggests the opposite.

But what about the claim that he is guilty of criminal negligence?

The State alleges that Harris was criminally negligent, that criminal negligence caused the child to suffer ( a felony ) and in the course of that felony, the child died. Felony murder.

Standard examples of criminal negligence involve activities that are inherently dangerous, for example texting while driving a car.

The State may argue that trying to look after a child while sexting women ( a distraction ) is criminally negligent, but I think that is problematic. It’s not at all clear that Harris or any reasonable person would think it’s wrong to be texting while looking after a child. It’s a common thing to do, and there is no law against it ( the fact that some of the women were under-age doesn’t I think make any difference here, as this doesn’t make the act any more dangerous to Cooper ).

The logical consequence would be that perfectly normal activities such as listening to the radio, making a telephone call, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, all normal activities that could distract you, while caring for a child, could be criminal negligence, punishable with a lengthy prison sentence.

I think that would be absurd. We may want to punish Harris for his failure to look after his child, but if he had not criminal intention, if he was not in the least bit aware that his actions that day were a danger to anyone, least of all his son, a guilty mind, I do not believe he should be found criminally negligent.

See also “What is “Child Cruelty” under Georgia Law?” Pate & Johnson law blog, June 2014,

and “Lawyers’ smart move in hot car death” CNN, July 2014.

Update: 15 Nov, 2016. Harris found guilty of all charges.
See here or here.




On Punishment

Two wrongs don’t make a right – you cannot compensate for a terrible loss by causing equal suffering to the person held responsible, even though revenge is a natural human emotion.
We don’t punish children severely when they make mistakes, even if the mistakes are terrible ( well not any more, look up the case of George Stinney ).
Now I am not saying that adults are children, they should be punished more than children for equivalent acts, plus there is a need to protect the public from offenders who may re-offend. But adults who commit crimes tend to be those who had bad childhoods, who suffer from mental illness, who have some kind of disadvantage.
A day is a long time in prison. A week is a long time. A month even longer, A year longer still. Ten years a very long time in prison. Twenty years an extraordinarily long time. These are harsh punishments, and provided authorities deem that someone has been rehabilitated, and is safe to release, this length of punishment should be enough even for the worst crimes.
This is how Norway approaches imprisonment. I would say it is humane and in the best interest of society.
It also gives some relief to the many people who are wrongly convicted. In my opinion the USA has fallen into a system of “ultimate vindictiveness” where large numbers of people are subject to unduly harsh punishments, often being sentenced to die in prison, being given no hope or reason to rehabilitate themselves. That is cruel.
[ Written in response to a comment here ]

Early thoughts on the Justin Ross Harris case

I believe the police have overstated the evidence in this case, for example saying Harris searched for “hot car death” when that wasn’t the case.

Kilgore also said that there was no evidence that Ross was searching on the internet for things like how long does it take for a child to die a hot car. Kilgore contends that police lied in their sworn statements when they accused Harris of these questionable searches.


That makes me suspect they don’t have anything solid. And it’s a strange and implausible way to murder your son, plus by all accounts he loved his son dearly.

I watched opening statements, and found the defense case to be convincing provided the evidence supports what was said, the State’s case unconvincing ( see discussion here ).

One thing to take into account is that these days some people will view a vast amount of material online on a huge number of topics over a long period of time. To be frank I think that if you did a similar analysis on any number of people’s devices, you would come up with a few “suspicious” things relating to almost any accusation. Unless the prosecution can show not only that various random topics (such as “child free”, a hot car info video) were accessed over a long period of time, but there was some pattern of planning, or incriminating things Harris actually said (typed, rather than reading ), there is no probative value.

It’s cherry picking evidence at it’s finest, and a new development over the last few years as disk storage capacity has increased massively. I think it should be ruled as irrelevant and inadmissible.

Still a long way to go in the trial, my opinion could change, but I am unconvinced so far by the State’s case, and there is at least reasonable doubt so far.