Monday, July 11, 2011

Are criminal trials about seeking the truth?

Rumpole discusses the motion that was filed in state court asking that the sign saying "We who labor here seek only the truth." (Herald article here).

Of course, that's not what criminal trials are about at all (the only question is whether the prosecutor proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt), and perhaps that is why the public is so upset about the Anthony verdict. Alan Dershowitz explains it the best in this op-ed:

A criminal trial is never about seeking justice for the victim. If it were, there could be only one verdict: guilty. That's because only one person is on trial in a criminal case, and if that one person is acquitted, then by definition there can be no justice for the victim in that trial.

A criminal trial is neither a whodunit nor a multiple choice test. It is not even a criminal investigation to determine who among various possible suspects might be responsible for a terrible tragedy. In a murder trial, the state, with all of its power, accuses an individual of being the perpetrator of a dastardly act against a victim. The state must prove that accusation by admissible evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt.

Even if it is "likely" or "probable" that a defendant committed the murder, he must be acquitted, because neither likely nor probable satisfies the daunting standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, a legally proper result—acquittal in such a case—may not be the same as a morally just result. In such a case, justice has not been done to the victim, but the law has prevailed.

For thousands of years, Western society has insisted that it is better for 10 guilty defendants to go free than for one innocent defendant to be wrongly convicted. ...
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.

A civil trial, on the other hand, seeks justice for the victim. In such a case, the victim sues the alleged perpetrator and need only prove liability by a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, if it is more likely than not that a defendant was the killer, he is found liable, though he cannot be found guilty on that lesser standard.

That is why it was perfectly rational, though difficult for many to understand, for a civil jury to have found O.J. Simpson liable to his alleged victim, after a criminal jury had found him not guilty of his murder. It is certainly possible that if the estate of Caylee Anthony were to sue Casey Anthony civilly, a Florida jury might find liability.

Casey Anthony was not found innocent of her daughter's murder, as many commentators seem to believe. She was found "not guilty." And therein lies much of the misunderstanding about the Anthony verdict.


Bob Becerra said...

I have to agree with Dershowitz. A criminal trial is a test that is the State's to lose. The standard of reasonable doubt protects all citizens against the power of the State to take their liberty and gives the jury, common people, the power to reject the wishes of the State against an individual if the State is not up to the task.

Of course, we all know that even with this daunting task, the State and federal government win the overwhelming majority of trials.

Anonymous said...

When the State seeks to deprive an individual of her liberty, or as in the Anthony case - her life, there is a process that is due. That includes having to prove her guilt to a jury of her peers beyond a reasonable doubt. Having seen teh jury system at work first hand and having seen other justice systems at work in other countries, I will take a jury of peers any time. Unfortunately, Nancy Grace et al. stoked their ratings with such a bias view that those jurors are now fearing for their safety and their life because they performed their civic duty to the best of their abilities adn held the State to its burden.

Rumpole said...

I'm just not sure I agree with the good professor. A criminal trial can be a search for the truth without it being a who-done-it and without changing the burden of proof. If a witness who said s/he saw something is lying, then a search for the the truth involves showing that the witness should not be believed. Showing that is in fact "a truth". A search for the truth does not have to be the whole truth. Can a witness be believed? Is a witness biased or mistaken? Those are facts, the truth of which will yield a just conclusion- the charge has or has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

I just think Professor D should not be so quick to throw the concept of "truth" out of a courtroom so quickly and cavalierly.

I think I write a post on this topic.

Anonymous said...

A trial is about winning

T. Don TenBrook, ASA Broward said...

I was going to comment, but Rumpole beat me to it, and I couldn't agree more with his comment.

Interesting to see that prosecutors and defense attorneys can actually agree!

defense attorney Delaware said...

When defending a suspected criminal. the defense lawyer should be able to counter all the given facts of the case and make the jury (if there is) believe his/her statements. It is about finding the truth and although there are people who immediately judge the suspected criminals, it is up to their lawyers to prove the allegations as false. Making people or the jury believe of the suspect's innocence can be very challenging but if the lawyer is experience and all the necessary facts are within his/grasp, the chance of freedom is high.