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In criminal law, Blackstone's formulation (also known as Blackstone's ratio or the Blackstone ratio) is the principle:
"better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer",
The principle is much older than Blackstone's formulation, being closely tied to the presumption of innocence in criminal trials. An early example of the principle appears in the Bible (Genesis 18:23-32), as:
Abraham drew near, and said, "Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? ... What if ten are found there?" He [The Lord] said, "I will not destroy it for the ten's sake."
The 12th-century legal theorist Maimonides, expounding on this passage as well as Exodus 23:7 ("the innocent and righteous slay thou not") argued that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty would progressively lead to convictions merely "according to the judge's caprice. Hence the Exalted One has shut this door" against the use of presumptive evidence, for "it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death."
Sir John Fortescue's De Laudibus Legum Angliae (c. 1470) states that "one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally." Similarly, on 3 October 1692, while decrying the Salem witch trials, Increase Mather adapted Fortescue's statement and wrote, "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that the Innocent Person should be Condemned."
John Adams also expanded upon the rationale behind Blackstone's Formulation when he stated:
|“||It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.||”|
More authoritarian personalities are supposed to have taken the opposite view; Bismarck is believed to have stated that "it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape;" and Pol Pot made similar remarks. Wolfgang Schäuble referenced this principle while saying that it is not applicable to the context of preventing terrorist attacks.
Alexander Volokh cites an apparent questioning of the principle, with the tale of a Chinese professor who responds, "Better for whom?"
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