Thursday, July 03, 2014

Thinking about causes and those responsible for events

Can we generalize from the ways police and courts deal with evidence?

I enjoy watching the police procedural set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise. In each episode of Series One, Inspector Poole lists all of the possible suspects for the murder under investigation, and then checks off whether each has motive, means and opportunity. This is the standard recognition that if a person is responsible for an event (in this case, a crime), then that person must have the means and opportunity for causing the event (crime) and probably has a motive for doing so.

This is related to the reporters focus on answering the questions, who, what, why, where, when and how? The policeman knows what, where and when to begin with, and focuses on the who, why and how.

So how do detectives prove a case?

  • They get evidence, such as videos showing the commission of the crime, fingerprints proving that a suspect was at the scene of the crime, etc. Of course, such evidence is usually not conclusive. Videos may not suffice to identify a person uniquely, and fingerprints may be left at a time other than when the crime is committed.
  • Eye witnesses, but we know that eye witness testimony is quite fallible.
  • Incrimination of the suspect from others who are known to have been involved in the crime, but sometimes such testimony is false and self-serving.
  • Confession, but even confessions to crimes may not be truthful indications of who committed the crime.
It is thus in the courts that juries or judges are asked to decide whether the evidence. Here is a statement of the standard:

The prosecutor must convince the judge or jury of a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This burden of proof is the highest that our system of justice imposes on a party to a trial. By contrast, in civil cases, such as those seeking damages for personal injuries or breach of contract, a plaintiff's burden is to prove a defendant liable by a  preponderance of the evidence -- just over 50%. 
As a practical matter, the high burden of proof in criminal cases means that judges and jurors are supposed to resolve all doubts about a defendant's guilt in favor of the defendant. With such a high standard imposed on the prosecutor, a defendant's most common defense is to argue that there is reasonable doubt -- that is, to argue that the prosecutor hasn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. 
I suggest that these ideas provide a checklist that might be used in trying to understand situations in your own life, perhaps especially your business life when things happen that affect you that you are having trouble understanding. 

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