Ask Judge Smith
The truth test in the courtroom: Liar, liar, pants on fire?
Q. Judge Smith, how can you tell if someone is lying? Todd
A. Almost everyone lies to some extent. Have you ever praised a lousy haircut? Or thanked Aunt Fanny for giving you an ugly Christmas sweater you’ll never wear? Some people fib to spare feelings.
However, there is a vast difference between telling a harmless “white lie” and giving false testimony to provide an alibi for Charlie, the rapist.
Life in the courtroom would be simpler if all witnesses were like Pinocchio, the wooden boy. Then the judge and jury could value a witness’s testimony based on the length of his nose.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire” is a euphemism for a spanking. If it were the literal truth, judges would need to keep fire extinguishers with them on the bench.
Now, let’s consider a simplified version of the Florida Supreme Court’s criminal jury instruction on weighing evidence.
It is up to you to decide what evidence is reliable. It would be best if you used your common sense in determining which is the best evidence and which evidence should not be relied upon in considering your verdict. You may find some of the evidence not reliable or less reliable than other evidence.
It would be best to consider how the witnesses acted and what they said. Some things you should consider are:
- Did the witness seem to have an opportunity to see and know the things about which the witness testified?
- Did the witness seem to have an accurate memory?
- Was the witness honest and straightforward in answering every attorney’s questions?
- Did the witness have an interest in the outcome?
- Does the witness’s testimony agree with the other testimony and other evidence in the case? Account
- Has the witness been offered or received any money, preferred treatment, or other benefits to testify?
- Did the witness make a prior statement inconsistent with the testimony he gave in court?
- Has the witness been convicted of any felony or a misdemeanor involving dishonesty?
You may rely upon your conclusion about the credibility of any witness. A juror may believe or disbelieve all or any part of the evidence or the testimony of any witness.
I suggest watching and listening to people when they testify. Sometimes their body language will betray their words. Ultimately, use your life experience, common sense, and gut instinct to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a Circuit Judge and the author of “Oswald on Trial—Making Sense of the Evidence,” and “Civics, Law, and Justice—How We Became U.S.” Email your questions to email@example.com.