This thesis provides jurors in criminal cases with a body of advice to guide and enrich their understanding of legal proof, knowledge, and justification, in order to ensure that the American legal system is carrying out justice. According to Michael Pardo’s (2010) article ‘The Gettier Problem and Legal Proof,’ there are five different possible accounts of the relationship between knowledge and legal proof, which vary based on the way they handle different perspectives on legal proof, epistemic concepts, and the extent to which justification is part of the goal or the goal of legal proof. I will argue that jurors in serious criminal cases should adhere to the knowledge account when evaluating evidence in trial. On this account the aim of a criminal trial is for the jurors to gain knowledge, ensuring that their verdict aims at something beyond a merely justified true belief.
Under the knowledge account the existence of any probatory errors or material errors sufficient to undermine knowledge in a trial are grounds for an acquittal. The definitions that I use for the material perspective and the probatory perspective differ from the standard notions of these terms. The term probatory more commonly refers to evidence and/or propositions that prove or help prove a proposition at issue for the purposes of deciding on a legal verdict. Evidence and/or propositions that are not probative do not prove or help prove a proposition at issue for the purposes of deciding on a legal verdict. The term material more commonly refers to evidence and/or propositions that are relevant to a legal case and establish or help establish the truth or falsity of a point at issue in a legal case. Evidence and/or propositions that are immaterial are irrelevant to a legal case and do not establish the truth or falsity of a point at issue in a legal case. I will use the following idiosyncratic definitions of the terms probatory and material as used in Pardo’s article ‘The Gettier Problem and Legal Proof’. The probatory perspective holds that truth is not essential to the goal of legal proof; instead, a proof standard is formulated that regulates whether the evidence meets the epistemic level set by the proof standard. A probatory error occurs when the evidence provided is insufficient to demonstrate that a proposition has met the requisite epistemic level set by the proof standard, yet a juror concludes that the proposition is proven. The material perspective includes truth as an essential part of the goal of legal proof, and on this perspective when probatory errors or material errors are made, the juror, the legal system, and the verdict have failed to achieve justice. A material error has occurred when either (a) the evidence provided is insufficient to demonstrate that a proposition has met the requisite epistemic level set by the proof standard, yet a juror concludes that the proposition is proven and/or (b) the proposition did not actually occur and a juror concludes that the proposition did occur. The case of Troy Anthony Davis provides an example of a trial that was arguably free from probatory errors, because the conviction of Davis was supported by sufficient evidence for knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, Davis argued that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice, because material errors occurred in his trial viz., that he’s innocent and so the jury failed to find the truth.
According to Justice Scalia (2009), defendants do not have the constitutional right to challenge their convictions through the writ of habeas corpus multiple times on the federal level when the state court and district court have already ruled that their trial is free of procedural errors. Under Justice Scalia’s perspective, defendants like Davis have exhausted all avenues of post conviction relief, if the state and federal courts have not unreasonably applied federal law, even if the convicted defendants claim that material
errors occurred in his/her trial, i.e., the defendant actually did not commit the crime, yet the jury convicted the defendant. Justice Scalia argues that the district court would be in violation of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, if it granted Davis the opportunity for a new trial, even if the district court was persuaded by the new evidence Davis provided to demonstrate that material errors occurred during his trial. Justice Stevens disagrees with Justice Scalia’s argument and upholds the constitutional significance of material errors. Justice Stevens argues that federal law, which bars death row inmates, who are actually able to prove their innocence, from receiving habeas corpus relief, may be unconstitutional even if their trials lack procedural errors.
Davis exhausted the maximal amount of recourse the American legal system could provide him. The state court, appellate court, and the U.S. Supreme Court all denied Davis post conviction relief. Troy Anthony Davis was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. For all the jury knew, however, Davis may very well have been innocent, even though he had a fair trial from a probatory perspective alone. If Davis were (and, he very well may have been) innocent, then a grave injustice has occurred. For the purposes of my thesis, I will use the Davis case as a case study and assume that Davis was innocent. I contest Justice Scalia’s ruling, arguing that a jury legally (and morally) should acquit a defendant if either probatory or material errors occur during his/her trial. The existence of these errors entails that the legal proof presented for the purposes of issuing a verdict failed to satisfy the knowledge account.