The expression “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” is usually attributed to Blackstone.
Sir William Blackstone was a jurist in eighteenth century England who wrote the four-volume treatise, Commentaries on the Laws of England. First published in 1766, it quickly went into multiple printings.
When the Constitutional Convention met during the summer of 1787, nearly every delegate was familiar with Blackstone’s commentaries and the principles of English Common Law. The disputes at that convention centered on distribution of power and the abolition of the slave trade. The delegates were in agreement about the principle behind what has come to be known as Blackstone’s Formulation: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Over two years earlier, Benjamin Franklin had moved the decimal a place to the right in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan (Mar. 14, 1785), when he wrote “that it is better one hundred guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”
The exact number is not the main issue, however. Even a quick bit of research will show that the main idea of it being better that x guilty persons go free than to condemn a single innocent has been expressed across centuries and cultures with a variety of values for x.
Historically, those who do not accept the general premise have been characters such as Pol Pot, (a study at Yale University estimated he was responsible for the deaths of over 20% of the Cambodian population,) or Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. Since 9-11 and the public’s increased awareness of terrorism, some of the fearful have tried to argue, “what if the guilty use their freedom to bomb hundreds of innocent school children,” which is a straw man fallacy.
One government agency continually opposes the value of innocence. It is Child Protective Services. This is an anathema to the sanctity of the family.
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