Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Convict him!

In February 2024, I watched the based-on-real-events film “In the Name of the Father”: During the “Troubles” era, two pub bombings are pinned on protagonist Gerry Conlon, while various friends/relatives/whatnot are convicted for the same or related crimes. Fifteen-or-so years later, the innocent are cleared and the convictions are shown to be based on manipulated and/or withheld evidence. (The real events deviate considerably from the movie, according to some interim readings, but the film appears to be true in substance and the “big picture”, including that evidence was deliberately mishandled.)

This film raises many interesting questions, including to what degree police, prosecutors, whatnot, in a given legal system can be trusted to do their jobs in a proper manner.


While Conlon’s trial took place in the U.K., similar problems appear to be particularly common in the U.S.

This, in part, because of a system of elected DAs, which gives strong incentives for abuse, e.g. to allow a prosecutor to profile himself for a later run at the position as DA, for an incumbent DA to strengthen his chances at reelection, and for such an incumbent to profile himself for other elected offices.

This, in part, because of the extensive use and abuse of plea bargaining, where many innocent prefer to plea guilty in exchange for a guaranteed lesser punishment over the risk of a conviction with potentially far worse consequences. The prosecution looks good with its achieved conviction, while the courts and the prosecution both save time and resources. The true perpetrator rarely objects.

A particular family of complications, and a recurring issue in both fiction and real life, relate to what the purpose of convicting a given accused is. This, especially, in light of the risk of the innocent being convicted—the accused is often guilty, but there is no guarantee, and even the innocent are sometimes convicted. (Examples other than Conlon and associates are plentiful. One particularly interesting, and one potentially similar to Conlon’s, is the conviction of the Swedish criminal and drug addict Christer Petterson for the murder of Olof Palme, which was soon over-turned by a higher court.)

Looking at many direct and indirect victims (notably, the families of murder victims), there often seems to be a feeling that whoever is accused is guilty and should be convicted—and that anything but a conviction is a failure of the justice system. Ditto angry crowds, who are usually poorly familiar with the evidence at hand, but are horrified by the crime.


This is not to be confused with the presumption of guilt often pushed by the likes of Feminists when it comes to rape and other special-to-them crimes. Here a very different mechanism of a deliberate tilting of the justice system is in play.

With Conlon, it appears that the police and/or the prosecution would have been willing to convict more-or-less anyone, in order to get the political pressure off their respective backs, to look good in the press, or whatever the ultimate motivation might have been. (As to “more-or-less”: Conlon had certain characteristics that made him more “suitable” than a random man off the street, including being Irish, a drug user, and a small-time criminal, but there was nothing magical about him. At the other end, we might have cases where someone, e.g. a political dissident, is targeted for the purpose of getting rid of specifically him.)

We can then pose questions like “Do you want to see someone convicted, regardless of guilt?”, “Do you want to see specifically X convicted, regardless of guilt?”, and “Do you want the guilty party convicted, regardless of identity?”. (And anyone rooting for a conviction should pose them to himself.)

A particular danger among victims can be a wish for closure, to put something behind them, to “see justice done”, and similar. If such a wish is satisfied by a conviction, while an acquittal leads to continued negative feelings, continued emotional upheaval, whatnot, then it can easily be the case that the conviction of the currently accused becomes more important than the conviction of the actually guilty party. (This assuming that the victims do not have certain prior knowledge of the identity of the guilty party.)

Looking at fictional portrayals, it seems that the gruesomeness of a particular crime is used as an argument to convince a jury to convict in a near blanket manner. Ditto e.g. a particular vulnerability of the victim, or a particular “lovable” character of the victim. (My exposure to real trials is both more limited and more indirect, and I make no statements on how common this is in real life.) The gruesomeness, however, is not evidence connecting any given suspect to the crime in any reasonable manner. The absurdity of pointing to the gruesomeness is demonstrated by how it would apply to any accused, regardless of whom, while e.g. fingerprints and DNA evidence can make a positive or negative statement about the specific accused at hand. I would go so far as to claim that a more gruesome crime requires a stricter, not a laxer, adherence to “beyond reasonable doubt”: If the conviction is wrongful, (a) the true perpetrator of that gruesome crime now goes without further investigation and could repeat the crime at a future time, (b) the falsely convicted will likely suffer a worse penalty than for some more regular crime, (c) opening the doors for laxer burdens of proof weakens “due process’ protections to the detriment of everyone.


A potential exception is when gruesome details make the accused more likely for other reasons. For instance, if the accused has already been convicted for a similar crime committed in a similar style, this could increase the plausibility that he is guilty of the crime at hand, too. Even this would rarely move beyond the circumstantial, however.

While gruesomeness is not a valid criterion when considering guilt, it can certainly be so when considering punishment, should a conviction take place. (Note that this does not apply to e.g. a “victim was loveable” argument.) In a typical U.S. criminal trial, however and in my impression, the jury is usually only the determiner of facts and guilt/innocence, while the judge is responsible for sentencing. Presenting the jury with proof of gruesomeness would then be pointless for legitimate purposes.