Alley's "Alleged" Assault:

A VC reader wonders why I wrote below that Sedley Alley "allegedly" raped and murdered Suzanne Collins when Alley was long-ago convicted of the crime and his conviction withstood numerous appeals and petitions for post-conviction relief.

At what point does one stop saying allegedly? He's been convicted, right? Plus he confessed (although he later recanted). Does the fact that he claims the conviction is unjust entitle him to an "allegedly" in front of the crime or does the conviction plus review through SCOTUS mean his crime is now no longer alleged?
This is a good question, it was something I pondered when drafting the post, and I am not sure I have a solid answer. Given that I wanted the post to be neutral on the subject matter, and because he was making an "actual innocence" claim (however improbable), I figured there was no harm in putting it in. Yet, as the reader notes, saying the crimes are only "alleged" after conviction and appeal seems to imply that the court system is not fair.

In this particular case, Alley's claims of actual innocence are quite incredible, coming two decades after his confessions and conviction. It is true that the state opposed Alley's belated effort to seek DNA testing of available evidence, but even "negative" DNA tests on the available physical evidence would have been inconclusive and the case against Alley was quite strong. [Had the facts been otherwise, Alley would have likely succeeded in his efforts to obtain post-conviction testing in state courts.] Note that I strongly support post-conviction testing of DNA evidence when such testing was not available at the time of trial. In this case, however, I do not believe the effort to obtain such tests was based upon a plausible claim of actual innocence.

Shelby (mail):
If you want a neutral tone I'd say "Alley was convicted of...". There you know you're stating a fact, and the reader can draw her own conclusions.
7.18.2006 9:16pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
News reports often use ``the suspect'' for eg. ``the robber,'' as in ``The suspect handed the teller a note ...''

Words take on the meaning of the word they replace, given time.

This is also true of euphemisms, which leads to euphemism chains as each replacement becomes offensive as well.
7.18.2006 9:37pm
AWT (mail):
How about "purportedly" instead?
7.18.2006 9:46pm
Judging by some of the comments of prosecutors resisting retrials in the face of overwhelming proof of innocence, anyone found guilty by a competent authority is guilty, whether he did the crime or not.
7.18.2006 9:48pm
Hattio (mail):
Just out of curiousity, why should DNA testing be limited to "plausible claims of actual innocence." I realize there is a cost to DNA testing, but presumably eventually there will reach a point where there are no old cases before DNA testing.
7.18.2006 10:10pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Why not always say "alleged"? "Alleged" needn't imply you either believe or disbelieve the allegation. It serves the salutary purpose of reminding us that there's a difference between truth and the outcome of the judicial system. We hope that the latter approaches the former, but they're conceptually distinct. And this is all the more important to stress when part of the convicted persons' claim is that he's innocent.
7.18.2006 10:24pm
Why not always say "alleged"?

Not to get into an epistemological discussion (OK, I am), but why not say "alleged" about everything you claim you know? How does one know "the truth" about anything?

I'm perfectly content to assume the truth about the guilt of a convicted murderer absent some evidence to the contrary, just as I'm perfectly content to assume the truth about the Earth going around the Sun absent evidence to the contrary. I don't need to say that the Earth "allegedly" goes around the Sun, even if I haven't myself looked into the evidence to support that assertion.
7.18.2006 11:50pm
In the world of journalism, which I have inhabited for 33 years, we make a fetish of using "alleged" or "allegedly" in all stories involving a misdeed.

The rules, however, change after a trial has been conducted and a person convicted. From then on, it's perfectly acceptable -- preferred, in fact -- to refer to So-and-So as a "convicted murderer," "convicted child molester" or "convicted foot sniffer."

There are, of course, exceptions to the rules. I, for one, would never permit the publication of a sentence like "Hitler allegedly plotted to eliminate all the Jews in Germany." He might have never stood trial and been found guilty, but we all know what was in that monster's heart.

7.19.2006 1:55am
Kovarsky (mail):
I submit people use "allegedly" because that's the most efficient term to describe the contested act in an actual innocence claim. to an average reader unfamiliar with the tortuous jargon of federal postconviction litigation, adding the word "allegedly" conveys that the substance of the claim being tested in the collateral litigation is the criminal act itself, rather than something like retardation, a brady violation, etc. (really, if you read most Atkins petitions, they will not refer to the "alleged" criminal act).

using "alleged" is a fairly sensible convention where any guilt is contested, and does not constitute some subliminal attempt to portray the offender as innocent. so using the word "alleged" is not in the interest of recognizing the interest of epistemic uncertainty, it's in the interest of clarity.

as i read above i see that this is roughly the point sasha is making, and she makes it more succinctly.

and, in response to the question about why a legal regime might resist mandatory zero-cost dna testing involves federal concerns about sandbagging these claims until the 11th hour, thereby frustrating society's interest in exercising its ultimate moral judgment. i don't subscribe to the argument, i'm just explaining it.
7.19.2006 2:05am
Kovarsky (mail):
by the way, i'm very pleased that, at least recently, there seems to be more habeas posts. i've been "away" for quite some time, and if anybody could tell me whether this is a blip in interest is more sustained, i would appreciate it. my sample size is too small to tell.
7.19.2006 2:07am
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I vote for "convicted." That way, you are not perceived as taking sides on someone's guilt or innocence (unless you want to be so perceived).
7.19.2006 6:46pm
Eugene G. Bernat (mail):
The term "allegedly," should no longer be used once a person is found guilty or liable.
7.19.2006 7:07pm
ano n:

"as i read above i see that this is roughly the point sasha is making, and she makes it more succinctly."

I allege that Sasha is male.
7.19.2006 9:02pm
Kovarsky (mail):
ano n,

i allege that this mine is a particularly embarassing mistake for someone of russian descent.
7.19.2006 11:36pm