The case of Adolf Beck is remarkable not so much because it was a classic instance of false conviction based on mistaken identification, but because it reveals how the British deal with such mistakes, in sharp contrast with how the United States tends to bury its judicial errors in graveyard technicalities and defensive self-righteousness.
Adolf Beck was mistaken for a man named John Smith, who had previously been convicted of scamming women of “loose virtue” by pretending to be a wealthy lord who wanted to take them as his mistresses and then proceeded to rob them of their jewelry. Based largely on the assumption that Beck was Smith, he was convicted and sentenced to two prison terms. The error was finally discovered, and Beck released, when it was shown that Smith was circumcised whereas Beck was not. This identifying distinction was known to some in the police establishment, though apparently not to the prosecutors. When it was finally discovered that Beck could not have been Smith, he was pardoned, but not before serving many years in prison for crimes he did not commit.
The important point was that Beck’s pardon did not end the matter. A Committee of Inquiry was appointed to investigate how such a mistake could have occurred, who was responsible, and how to avoid its recurrence.
The lesson of this case is always to be skeptical of eyewitness identification. Social scientists have now conducted experiments that demonstrate how frequently eyewitnesses misidentify their assailants. This is especially true when the police make suggestive comments or arrange lineups or showups in suggestive ways. But the lesson is even broader. Evidence should always be viewed skeptically through the prism of reasonable doubt and against the background of Blackstone’s mantra that it is better for ten guilty to go free than for even one innocent to be wrongly convicted as Adolf Beck was.