July 13, 2011

Truth or Justice or the American Way?

Marge: I don't mind you boys doing this in the living room, but in court, doesn't Bart have to tell the truth?

Lionel Hutz, Esq*: Yeah, but what is truth, if you follow me.
- "Bart Gets Hit By a Car," The Simpsons (1991)

In the wake of last week's verdict in the Casey Anthony case, several notable legal voices, including Jeralyn at TalkLeft and Alan Dershowitz at *choke* HuffPo, made the point that in the United States, trials aren't really about finding out what's "true." In criminal cases, the only issue is whether the defendant did whatever the state is charging her with beyond a reasonable doubt. Whatever the ultimate "truth" is really doesn't matter.

It's the nature of the system. Rather than a free ranging pursuit of the facts, to be followed whereever they lead, it's a contest between two opposing theories. There will be a winner. There will be a loser. Juries aren't free to pick some other choice. Civil trials, where the burden of proof is more lax, may actually get closer to actual truth, in the end.

Beyond that, rules of evidence and other procedural issues often keep juries from hearing all of the facts that might be relevant to the truth. Doesn't matter if the defendant had a gun in his car if the cops searched it in violatio of the Fourth Amendment, because the jury will never hear about it. Hearsay? Deemed unreliable enough that we can't trust jurors to parse what's true from what's false (judges, on the other hand, get to do it all the time).

Which is to say that anybody who looks to trials, criminal trials in particular, to define truth for them is on a fool's errand. Unless you're in Florida, ironically enough:
A Miami-Dade judge on Tuesday denied a lawyer’s request to remove a courtroom sign that reads, “We who labor here seek only the truth.”

Defense lawyer Louis Jepeway Jr., representing a man accused in a 2006 triple murder in Miami, had sought to remove the sign. He said it was improper because jurors aren’t always allowed to see the whole truth — meaning some evidence collected by police. He said the sign may spur jurors to wonder what evidence was being omitted from the trial.

The signs, which hang above the benches of most Miami-Dade judges, were introduced in the 1940s.[/quote]
Admittedly, I don't find the defense argument al that compelling. Not because he isn't right about what that phrase might cause a juror to think, but because I doubt any of them ever notice it's there. A slogan over the bench is precisely the kind of thing that blends into the background of the courtroom.

Besides, since courtrooms aren't a place to pursue the truth, what the harm in telling a little white lie about that?

* Esquire, for those not in the biz, means "law talking guy."

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