Why The Truth Doesn’t Matter At Trial

by Jamison Koehler on October 31, 2013

One of my favorite episodes from the old T.V. show “All In The Family” involved a situation in which an African-American repairman came to the Bunker household to fix a kitchen appliance.  Archie Bunker, the right-wing bigot, and his leftist, hippie son-in-law each remembered the incident differently, and the show began with two flashbacks in which each man re-told the same story, with each version skewed by the teller’s own biases.  In Archie’s version, the repairman was a knife-wielding, jive-talking member of the Black Panthers. In the son-in-law’s version, the man was a shuffling and obsequious Uncle Tom.

The show ended with Edith Bunker’s version of the same event, which the viewer could safely assume reflected what really happened.  Not surprisingly, though recounting the exact same sequence of events, neither Archie’s nor the son-in-law’s version was anywhere close to the truth.  It turns out the repairman was neither menacing nor an Uncle Tom, and the instrument he wielded was not a switch-blade but a screwdriver.

Whenever criminal charges are brought, there is always an objective and presumably knowable truth as to what really happened.  If you had superpowers, you could turn back time and hover above the events as they took place and learn for yourself what really happened. You could, in other words, witness the Edith Bunker version of the truth.

But that objective truth is rarely, if ever, introduced at trial.  The finder-of-fact – be it a judge or a jury — learns what happened not through direct observation but through the imperfect testimony of equally imperfect human beings.  Memories fade.  Perceptions skew.  Minds rationalize.  People have agendas.  And everything the fact-finder learns is shaped through manipulation by the lawyers, with each side attempting to push the finder-of-fact toward its version of the truth. There are degrees of truth, and variations of the truth.

The objective truth tends to yield to the more believable truth, and, because to the winner go the spoils, that believable truth then becomes the accepted truth when the verdict is delivered.  It doesn’t matter if the prevailing version sounds like Archie Bunker’s story or his son-in-law’s. It becomes what really happened.

This is why the question of innocence or guilt rarely even occurs to this criminal defense lawyer.  It is why, in this context anyway, the protestation that “I am innocent” doesn’t mean anything at all.  The real question instead is:  Of the evidence that can be introduced at trial, what truth can this evidence tell?

2 Comments on “Why The Truth Doesn’t Matter At Trial

  1. Pingback: Blawg Review 325.9 | a public defender

  2. A patent infringement case in which I was involved a number of years ago drove home to me a point I think similar to the one you are making. The issue was that one company claimed 2 other companites had infringed on its product because the infringing companies’ product had the same proportions of various molecular constituents as were protected in a prior patent. Making this product is a complicated engineering process, the data could be subject to misinterpretation and so it was not completely obvious that there was infringement. Leading up to a trial there is a section called claim construction, which is argued to a judge and by this method definitions of claims, here most involving materials and processes, are locked in before trial. And as I understand it, whether incorrect or not, these will be unchangeable during the trial. I believe this is called a Markman hearing.

    I found that the lawyers from the other side were just making up definitions in the claim constructions to suit their case, and these definitions were often just based on unrelated legal terminology or otherwise completely incorrect ideas. Rightful/accepted meanings used in the engineering world because successful engineering products and processes depend on these definitions were purposefully avoided or misrepresented. Our lawyers were very good and able to point out fallacies in the other sides’ constructions. Ultimately the judge decides on which of the claim constructions positions are correct. I gained a lot of respect for the federal judge overseeing the case because she had to do a LOT of reading to understand these issues. And about a year later she made all of the correct decisions. (Then the case was settled!)

    As the pre-trial process progressed, at one point we gave the judge a technical tutorial on the materials and processes used in making these materials and a lot of the tutorial was directly rebutting the information the other side was claiming. Anyway, after I finished my time on the stand I remember how clear was my realization that justice could very easily be unattainable in this case or even subverted. For example, if the judge could be persuaded to take one of the incorrect claim construction definitions, or if we had not had a lawyer who could think so well on his feet, or if the judge was simply too busy or lazy, or if the other side was more convincing in their arguments, then justice COULD never have been served regardless of whether there was infringement, because correct information would have been excluded from the trial. I was a little bit disturbed by this realization.

    I gained a lot of respect for lawyers and their ability to think. Also a deposition can be downright hostile!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *