The purpose of a criminal trial is often misunderstood. The misunderstanding is thanks in no small part to the way criminal trials are portrayed in movies, television, shows, and books. The story builds up to that final courtroom scene and, at the climax of the trial, the “truth” is either tricked out of the witness through clever cross-examination by defence counsel, or a surprise eyewitness turns up, or a juror discloses they’ve all been bribed. How exciting. And awesome – nothing feels better than knowing justice has been served, that the “truth” has prevailed.
Well, the real truth is that trials are not a search for the “truth”. Instead, trials are about what can be proved through evidence, using the rules of evidence. Consider it this way: if trials were truly only about the truth, then shouldn’t every accused be forced to testify? To share their part of the truth? But clearly that cannot be so, because people charged with criminal offences have a constitutional right not to testify, and it is a rule of evidence that judges cannot assume that a person is guilty because they choose to exercise that right.
The second example is an example of hearsay: thinking that the “truth” is made out because someone else told them it was so. If trials were truly only about getting to the truth, then shouldn’t Maria be able to get up on the stand and say “John told me that he saw David steal the car – that’s the truth!” and that would be the end of it, right? The truth is out.
Wrong: this is hearsay – a statement made to Maria outside of court by someone else. Hearsay is presumptively inadmissible – that’s a rule of evidence. The truth about whether or not David stole the car actually doesn’t matter as much as how the theft can be proven. Instead, John would need to testify as a witness, because he actually saw David steal the car. That is the difference between direct evidence (reliable) and indirect evidence (unreliable).
But what if John cannot testify – because he passed away, for example. Assuming that David did actually steal the car, does that “truth” change simply because David cannot testify? No.
But is David going to be found guilty absent John’s testimony? No, he may be acquitted, because the crime cannot be proven through the rules of evidence (unless an exception to the rules exists, which it might here).
The truth is the truth; but what matters in a criminal trial are the parts of the truth that can be proven using the rules of evidence.
To be fair to popular culture, movies and television shows don’t get everything wrong. But what they cannot accurately depict are the rules of evidence, because the rules of evidence are detailed, complicated, and conditional (in that they can sometimes change depending on the existence or absence of certain factors). It takes law students years to learn the general rules of evidence, and then years of practice to finesse their application to specific cases.
That is why representation by a criminal lawyer is so important. If you have been charged with a criminal offence, contact the team at DeMelo Law. You know the truth, and we know the rules of evidence.