Tuesday, July 12, 2011
SEEK ONLY TRUTH
A minor contretemps has broken out on the issue of whether or not a criminal trial is a search for the truth. Louie Jepeway is filing motions to remove signs from our courtrooms saying that we labour in court to seek the truth, and DOM posted part of an op-ed piece written by Professor Alan Dershowitz in the Wall Street Journal here. Professor Dershowitz argues in a nutshell that a criminal trial is about neither truth nor justice for the victim but merely an enterprise designed to answer one simple question- has the prosecution presented proof of the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
That is why a criminal trial is not a search for truth. Scientists search for truth. Philosophers search for morality. A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rumpole rumbles: au contraire good professor. Lets take a closer look before we pahrk that cahr in the Hahvard yahrd.
A criminal trial is a search for truth, just not necessarily for the ultimate truth. The problem with Dershowitz's argument is that he tosses truth out of court like some misbegotten rag doll, neither needed nor wanted. In light of the Casey Anthony verdict courts have a public relations problem, whether we like it or not. The last thing we want to do is rub the public's nose in our judicial process by thumbing our nose at truth.
It is true that a criminal trial is not a search for the ultimate truth: "did the defendant do it?"
By definition and grand tradition, a criminal trial is a decision only on whether the prosecution has presented proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But within that framework truth has an important place, indeed the most important place, in a criminal trial.
Did the witness tell the truth when s/he said s/he saw the defendant steal the car?
Did the witness tell the truth when s/he said s/he has no bias against the defendant?
Did the officer tell the truth when s/he said the defendant confessed?
Can we believe the officer when s/he said s/he did not trick the defendant into confessing or did not threaten the defendant or his family with more serious crimes?
Did the officer actually see the Defendant possess the drugs before they found the drugs on the floor of the car?
Do we believe the expert is indeed an expert in the field they say they are?
Did the lab technician competently perform the work they said they did?
Did the defendant's alibi witnesses tell the truth?
Did the defendant tell the truth when he said he acted in self defense?
At every stage of the trial the jury is constantly being required to evaluate testimony to determine what is the truth and whether a witnesses was mistaken or lied or was believable.
In Florida the jury is instructed among other things to consider whether the witness "was honest and straightforward in answering the attorneys questions?" In other words, "was the witness believable? Did the witness tell the truth?"
A criminal trial is and must be a search for the truth. The prosecutor has the job of seeking justice while the defense attorney has the obligation to challenge the evidence as he or she sees fit so that the jury can determine which evidence is believable, which evidence is not. From those dozens or sometimes hundreds of decisions an individual juror makes during a trial a decision is eventually reached- the prosecution did or did not present evidence in the form of witnesses and physical evidence that proved the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
So Professor Dershowitz, we say you acted a bit too hasty in your defense of the American criminal justice system when you tossed truth out the door. Truth remains the anvil upon which evidence is hammered by one side or the other until a decision is reached.
Without truth there can be no verdict. Lest the good professor forget, "Verdict" is a word derived from two Latin words- "Veri'- meaning "truth" and "dicta"- meaning to speak.
When a jury renders a verdict, they speak the truth. So lets be careful before we toss truth out the door.
See You In Court.