light man love people

Is it Better that Ten Guilty Persons Go Free that One Innocent be Convicted?

The law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer. William Blackstone

I was planning a completely different post for today but then on Friday last week they announced super good news. Olivier Vandecasteele was released after 455 days of detention in an Iranian prison on alleged charges of espionage and undermining national security. He was innocent.

Who is Olivier Vandecasteele?

He is a Belgian humanitarian aid worker, who used to serve international NGOs in Iran for over six years.

Why Olivier was arrested?

He was arrested as a consequence of the often-used Iranian tactic of imprisoning foreigners as hostages to exchange them with certain Iranians jailed in Western countries. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes as well as $1 million fine. He spent 455 days in prison under unbearable conditions. He lost 25 kilos.

This was the case for Olivier. An Iranian diplomat has been convicted of a plot to bomb a big French rally held by an exiled opposition group in 2018. He worked at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, was given a 20-year jail term by the court of Antwerp in Belgium. It was the first time an Iranian official had faced such charges in the EU since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

How was it possible to free Olivier?

Belgium and Iran carried out a prisoner swap, even though it was a controversial decision, as it creates a precedent and no State wants to come to terms with any states that don’t enforce the rule of law.

The journalist on the news commented that it was used the so called Blackstone ratio. In criminal law, Blackstone’s ratio (also known as Blackstone’s formulation) is the idea that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer, as expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s. It has become part of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

This ratio or formulation made me think to its implications, actually it’s a real dilemma.

A survey carried out by the Cato Institute shows that 60% of Americans think it’s worse to imprison innocent people than let guilty people go free. I also agree on that, it’s a moral principle that everyone who is innocent shall be free.

Now there is one innocent free, Olivier, but another person who was in jail for plotting a terror attack is also free. I guess that there will be many debates about it in the coming days and weeks, after the enthusiasm for his return will be forgotten.

But I won’t forget it. Olivier is finally back to Belgium with his family, friends, and colleagues. And I am happy about it, when I heard about his liberation on the news I broke out in tears.

It’s a relief for all of us who signed a petition for his liberation, who went on the streets to protest against the Belgian government being slow in the negotiations, and who showed posters on the house windows. Olivier should never have been detained. Finally, a joint action of solidarity made his coming back home possible.

Do you believe that this Blackstone ratio is a fair principle of law?

11 thoughts on “Is it Better that Ten Guilty Persons Go Free that One Innocent be Convicted?

  1. Thanks a lot for an interesting blog post and the question you rise. Which I found a difficult one.

  2. As wonderful the release of one is, how many others have been put at risk as a result of this exchange? I shudder to think. What a difficult and morally challenging dilemma this is.

  3. Politics by its nature pits one side against another, creating conditions at times where innocent people are detained, purely for political reasons. I don’t agree with this way of living, so I don’t do it, but I also understand the world we live in currently does.

    I’m happy an innocent person was released. This is good news indeed!

  4. I was not aware of this whole Olivier situation- thanks for sharing about it. If life is going to be imperfect, and it probably is, let’s err on the side of keeping all the innocent free.

  5. I had not heard of Olivier before this article. Fascinating post and tough dilemma. I like what Todd said about life being imperfect. Yes, there are no easy answers but I’m grateful to you for bringing this one forward.

  6. It’s a hard question to answer as it depends on my perspective. If I knew or was the innocent person, then obviously I’d agree. If I was one of the people harmed by the guilty, I’d hesitate before letting them go. We can only hope that karma catches up to the guilty at some point I guess.

Leave a Reply