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Argument from ignorance in the legal system

  1. Sep 3, 2009 #1


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    I've watched the Dateline NBC episode on Vincent Brothers, and was disturbed that the evidence used to convict him was exactly the kind that UFO crackpots like to use. Here's a pretty good summary of the show, even though it's from an unreliable-looking website:


    So the court proved that Brothers drove far enough to commit the murder, and that his rental car was at some time in the Western or central United States. There was no evidence that he was in the same city the murders took place, or even in the same state, at the time of the murder. The prosecution presented no physical evidence from the crime scene and offered no convincing motive (according to the show, they just guessed one); it relied purely on circumstantial evidence.

    This strikes me as very similar to the "reasoning" supporting alien abductions, ghosts, ESP, etc: "I don't know why these strange coincidences are taking place, and my imagination isn't good enough to guess a reason, so I'll just assume it's ghosts/aliens/mind reading." In this case, it's "I don't know why he drove 5000 miles on the weekend, and my imagination isn't good enough to think up a few possibilities, so I'll just assume he was busy murdering his family." It seems that if there was even one scientist on the jury, Brothers would have been acquitted.

    What do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 3, 2009 #2


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    I think you cannot rely on a television program to accurately and completely present all the facts of the case.
  4. Sep 3, 2009 #3


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    Maybe not, but every site I've seen on the Internet backs up its claims.

    Even if the TV show isn't accurate, I'm still concerned: considering what we see about the public's ability to judge evidence, like the widespread belief in UFOs, aliens, astrology, and alternative medicine, is trial by jury really unbiased? Non-scientists tend to find circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony convincing, whereas over-reliance on these forms of evidence is what starts most superstitions.
  5. Sep 3, 2009 #4
    I think the problem begins right there. :biggrin: Just kidding. Sort of.

    While the only time I was ever "called" for possible jury duty I had already moved from the state (due to graduation from my Ph.D. program), I've heard that all I'll ever have to do to avoid duty is mention I'm a scientist (or have an advanced degree).
  6. Sep 3, 2009 #5


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    Yep. My wife and I, who are both college professors, have been called for jury duty (separately of course) a few times. Each time except one, we just sat around for a few hours in the courthouse on the first day of court session, answering some questions about ourselves and waiting for the first jury to be picked. After that we had to be prepared for the possibility of being called back (by phone) sometime during the next week or so to serve on a later trial, which never happened.

    The lawyers on both sides of a trial can exclude a certain number of juror candidates for whatever reason they want ("peremptory challenges", I think they're called). Most lawyers around here (a small rural town) don't want jurors who are too smart. They want jurors that they think they can easily persuade of the merits of their case.

    My wife actually did get on a jury once, but only because both lawyers ran out of peremptory challenges and they had to take her when her name came up!
  7. Sep 3, 2009 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    That is a pretty funny statement when you think about it. Yes, courts make legal rulings every day without a shred of scientific evidence. While science enjoys the luxury of demanding experimental evidence and repeatability before giving a claim serious consideration, most of the world outside of science does not enjoy that luxury because it is not possible.

    If we required scientific proof [strong evidence] of a crime before convicting a person, very few people would ever be convicted of anything. Does that suggest that they would all be innocent? If you think so, then I have some swampland to sell you. :biggrin:
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2009
  8. Sep 3, 2009 #7


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    Chances are excellent that all of those come ultimately from a single (biased) source. Unless you were sitting int eh jury box during the trial, you don't know and cannot know exactly how the case was laid out. Despite popular opinion, juries are not generally stupid although they may be ignorant of certain things as members of the general public tend to be. One of the jobs of the attorneys is to educate them about those things they need to understand in order to make an informed decision. Juries don't decide guilt or innocence, they decide if the prosecution has proven its case beyond a given standard of proof--for criminal trials, that standard is reasonable doubt. Historically, juries are surprisingly good at this; in cases where an incorrect finding of guilt or innocence have occurred there is usually a serious blunder on the part of the defense or misrepresentation of the facts by the prosecution.
  9. Sep 3, 2009 #8


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    No kidding! I was called for jury duty once, and went through jury selection on a few cases. As soon as they learned I was a biologist (understood enough about how blood alcohol testing was done so I wouldn't buy the defense's nutty argument about an obviously drunk driver pleading not guilty...but didn't matter because the other jury members told me later that it was a complete joke of a defense and they found the guy guilty anyway), and especially that I taught gross anatomy (one of the trials was a murder trial), they kept sending me home.

    If I ever get called again for jury duty, I think I'll try getting out of it by writing an explanation that I'm a scientist and we all know that it would just be wasting my time to show up to get kicked off all the juries on the basis of knowing more than the lawyers about how to interpret evidence. :biggrin:
  10. Sep 3, 2009 #9


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    There was a jury selection process that I was part of a while back, where the case involved a car accident and injuries. There were going to be expert witnesses on both sides who were specialists in accident investigations. One question from the lawyers to prospective jurors was, "Can you set aside your own backgrounds, and only base your decision on what the experts in accident investigation present?"

    There was an engineer who was in the jury box in the initial group. He hesitated a moment in answering that question, but said he thought he could. He was the first one booted from the box. I never made it up to the box -- the two sides settled before trial.
  11. Sep 3, 2009 #10
    Convictions are made on circumstancial evidence all the time. The circumstancial evidence is supposed to be really good to pass muster but that is not always the case.

    And of course juries are biased. They are supposed to be. They are not supposed to be unduly biased, but they are supposed to be normal every day people with thoughts, ideas, and experiences of their own. Most lawyers and judges don't like that. They want a set of pawns to control not free thinking people who might mess up the justice system.
  12. Sep 4, 2009 #11
    I consider the Rubin Carter and John Artis case of 1967 to be a perfect example of everything that can go wrong with the system. First mistake, with the description of the perpetrators being "two black men in a white car", the next time the police saw any two black men in a white car they arrested them. Second mistake, the police emphasized that the two men who were arrested had some friends who were political radicals - guilt by association. Third mistake, the police bought witnesses --the police literally made a public announcement that if anyone would come forward and say that they were in the bar the night the murders were committed, and say that the suspects did it, the police would pay each of the people who come forward $10,000. That's is a complete listing of the "evidence." If you were on the jury, how would you vote? This jury voted to send the two men to the electric chair.
  13. Sep 4, 2009 #12
    I think you left some things out. A neighbor in California places him in the vicinity around the time of the murders. Not only did he drive 5400 miles, he had his brother using his credit card and forging his signature on the day of the murders. In the car, they found parts of bugs that supposedly only live west of the Rockies. Ok, the last one might be a bit shaky, but why did he tell his brother to lie about getting credit card receipts and forging his name for him in North Carolina? Why wouldn't he take his credit cards with him for such a long trip?

    I think that's enough evidence, together with historical factors, to convict him.
  14. Sep 4, 2009 #13
    Isn't circumstancial evidence not "good" enough in criminal trials. I thought there could be no doubt that person x is guilty (in criminal cases)...not just "could" be guilty. I'm not sure though. Anyone?

    If by biased you mean impartial. Which is the total opposite of what you said.

    There's definately evidence that was left out by the OP. If not, that would be ridiculous and easily grounds for a mistrial.
  15. Sep 4, 2009 #14


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    You can prove beyond a reasonable doubt with only circumstancial evidence. For example, the evidence could eliminate everyone except for the suspect.

    None the less, the article has hopefully left out some pretty significant evidence since the evidence illustrated in the article clearly does not eliminate anyone in the entire state of California and does not even prove the suspect was in California. They did prove he was lieing about his whereabouts (all of that stuff would be real important circumstancial evidence, just not sufficient in itself).
  16. Sep 4, 2009 #15
    DAs and Judges prefer more than circumstancial evidence. A DA may decide not to try a case with only slim circumstancial evidence and a judge may decide that the evidence is to slim to actually try the case. A case can be made entirely based on circumstancial evidence though, it is just considered to be relatively weak.

    What I mean is that all people have biases. Some people are more religious and may decide differently based on their religiousity or they may be against religion and their decision may be influenced by this. The point of having jury trials is for a person to have the opportunity to be judged by his peers instead of a judge. Representatives of the actual community get to decide if the person is guilty and should go to jail. A person can be guilty as sin according to the law and a jury can still find the person innocent if they choose.

    Judges and lawyers don't like this though. Now a days jurors are told not to think for themselves. They are told that they must decide the case based on the law even though that is patently false. Under the guise of trying to weed out persons who are unduly biased in one direction or another lawyers stack the jury and weed out people who might be too smart to follow what ever direction they are given. Or as some members have mentioned here they may send away any one who has actual knowledge that could be relevant to the case.

    They don't care about 'impartial' they care about having pawns who will do as they are told.
  17. Sep 6, 2009 #16


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    I did deliberately leave out a few details, but I didn't know about the eyewitness testimony mentioned on the website; I'm positive that the NBC episode never mentioned it. It did, however, mention that somebody in the East witnessed a boy's bike crashing into Brothers' car around the time of the murders. To be fair, another person also claimed to be the driver involved in the crash, but (according to the show) he didn't match the witness's description and had previously denied being the driver in question.

    Most convictions I've heard of are backed up by much stronger evidence than the circumstantial evidence involved here. Often the suspect's DNA or fingerprints are at the crime scene. Sometimes there are multiple witnesses or surveillance video. More often than not, the prosecution presents a clear motive: perhaps money, or revenge, or hatred. With 1% of the U.S. population in jail, does the U.S. really need to incarcerate any more innocent people?
  18. Sep 6, 2009 #17
    Its possible that they had, or thought they had, a tighter case to begin with. Evidence could have been ruled inadmissible. Witnesses may have balked.
  19. Sep 7, 2009 #18
    I think you're right. Beyond reasonable doubt does not mean proven, but rather no doubt that's reasonable. There can be doubt (ex. aliens kidnapping), just not any that's reasonable. They use DNA evidence; however, for so many thousands or millions of people sampled, some are going to get close enough results for a conviction. Since the chance is so small, if they use that as an objection nothing will get done.
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