While perhaps a little disturbing, the fact remains that many innocent people have been, are being, and will be accused of criminal behavior, even in a modernized society such as ours. America has had its share of this vice: from the Salem witch trials to the McCarthy Era, and even as recently as the September 11thattacks on the Trade Towers, people in this nation have been subject to false accusations and, be they found guilty or innocent, suffer the consequences of being so accused. While the guilty are deserving of punishment under the statutes of modern law, the punishment of the innocent remains a shameful – even embarrassing – aspect of our society.
All that being said, this problem is not a new one; evidence of false accusations of criminal behavior dates as far back as c.1810 B.C., when Hammurabi, the King of Babylon at the time, produced a legal code which punished false accusers with the same punishment the falsely accused would have been subjected to, had they been found guilty. The code goes on – with reference to murder – “If a man has accused someone and has cast an accusation of murder against him and has not proved it, the accuser shall be put to death.”1 An extreme example to be sure, this ancient law nevertheless represents the important precept of imposing consequences on individuals who make false accusations.
But why were the demands of justice so severe when a false accusation had been made; moreover, what has been done in the modern day to help prevent false accusations of criminal activity? These questions can be answered by examining the consequences of being accused of a crime, by a contemporary example of attempts to cull the frequency of such accusations, and by the problems inherent in attempting to discourage false accusers.
The Consequences of Being Charged
Just about anyone who has been charged with criminal activity can tell you that it is a life-altering event. Without even considering the vast array of penalties that might be imposed by a court if convicted, the innocent accused might face arrest, interrogations, fines and exorbitant attorney fees. All of these of course come with incidental side-effects: jobs might be lost, family relations might be ruined and abject humiliation might destroy social reputations, even if the accused is ultimately found to be in fact innocent.
As an example – though perhaps not as extreme as that exhibited in the Code of Hammurabi – in 1990, a man convicted of committing a sexual offense against his children was sentenced to and served 15 years in prison. By the time he was released in 2007, DNA evidence – along with his children’s public acknowledgment that their accusations were lies – resulted in the vindication of the man’s innocence. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, by the time the man was released the case had wound up costing Utah taxpayers $70,000.00 in reparations. Yet even this amount is not comprehensive: it likely cost tens of thousands of dollars just to defend and/or prosecute the case. Prosecutors, bailiffs, judges, clerks, defense attorneys; all had to be paid to spend time addressing these false accusations, to say nothing about the emotional, psychological and financial costs to the accused man. Ultimately, the financial costs of this false accusation alone doubtlessly ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all of that had to be paid by either the taxpayers or the accused, innocent man.
In short, false accusations can be responsible for horrific psychological consequences toward the accused, to say nothing of the financial costs to the state. With stakes as serious as playing with fire when dealing with false accusations, it comes as no surprise, then, that societies around the world have adopted different methods to curb their frequency. A few examples are listed below.
Whilst the age of Hammurabi may have sanctioned a sort of “eye for an eye” style of justice when it came to false accusations, such cliché’s have garnered a negative spin in today’s civilized societies. As a result, in certain parts of the world, incarceration and fines are the generally proscribed punishment for bringing false accusations against an individual.
To take an example, in the United Kingdom there is a code which defines what is termed “perverting the course of justice,” a code aimed directly at individuals who make false accusations of rape or domestic violence. The code stresses a number of reasons for its enforcement – from wasting police time to abusing the legal system in general – and specifies guidelines for determining when such an offense has been committed. In the UK, a false allegation of criminal behavior is considered “more likely” to be a perversion of justice when:
1) a false complaint was motivated by malice;
2) a false complaint was sustained over a period of time (particularly where there were opportunities to retract);
3) the person originally accused was charged and remanded in custody;
4) the person originally accused was tried, convicted and / or sentenced;
5) the suspect has previous convictions or out-of-court disposals relevant to this offence, or a history of making demonstrably false complaints. This needs to be carefully assessed – a history of withdrawing support for allegations will not necessarily amount to a propensity to make false allegations for the reasons set out in paragraph 18. This will only be a relevant factor if there is clear evidence of such a history;
6) the person originally accused was in a vulnerable position or had been taken advantage of; and / or
7) the person originally accused has sustained significant damage to his or her reputation.
On conviction, false accusers in the UK face everything from a fine to six months in prison, a stance significantly harsher than that taken by other countries, like the United States. Even so, according to The Guardian news, 109 women were prosecuted (with 98 of them convicted), for making false accusations of rape between 2009 and 2014. This suggests that the modern deterrents – even as severe as they are in the United Kingdom – do not appear to be having universal effectiveness; of course, this is a criticism that could easily be applied to almost every law in every country today, but nevertheless represents a chronic problem with modern attempts to resolve the issue of false accusations
Problems with Deterring False Accusations
Among all the difficulties in dealing with false accusers, the single and most problematic issue facing today’s society is perhaps finding a way to control accusations in general. Just as an individual falsely accused is bound for almost unspeakable and unjust suffering, so too, in many ways, is the individual accused of making false accusations. Such individuals might be subject to countersuits and charges, even to the point of a criminal conviction and sentence, as has been seen. Of course, punishing individuals falsely accused of making false accusations is simply another manifestation of the problem itself, and indeed, may intimidate genuine victims out of coming forward in the first place.
Ultimately, it must be recognized that society today is still seeking to find a balance between punishing false accusers without deterring innocent victims. From the Code of Hammurabi to the laws of the United Kingdom, the debate remains contentious and as yet unresolved. That the problem of false accusation itself exists is beyond dispute; that five thousand years of recorded human history has yet to find a satisfactory resolution, is perhaps more troubling.
Photo Courtesy of: Stuart Miles@freedigitalphotos.net
1 Saggs, H.W.F. The Babylonians (Sidgwick & Jackson, Great Britain, 1988), p. 170.