February 21, 2009

The Value of Eyewitness Testimony


In modern times, there is an ongoing tendency to devalue eyewitness testimony in favor of hard evidence.  Not only does this defy long-standing legal tradition but is contrary to testimony’s legal standing as evidence as well. The desire to prevent innocents from being convicted is understandable, but the first act of law is to determine the facts.


To make a point, it is useful to consider that hard evidence is testimony as well.  Each item of hard evidence speaks of the things that it only can speak of and no more.  Though expected to speak the truth, it could lie under some circumstances.  The forensic technician then gives secondhand testimony to what the hard evidence told him.  Secondhand human testimony is considered hearsay unless it has special credibility.  How can eyewitness testimony be of less value than the secondhand testimony of hard evidence?  You will say that the eyewitness may not be credible, but the value of the hard evidence depends on the integrity of the forensic witness who repeats what he was told.  This is not meant to slight those who diligently pursue truth in such matters, but rather to establish the value of the means to that truth.


The goal then is to determine the truth.  In an absolute sense, saying a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is a lie.  His guilt remains in spite of such a saying or his innocence likewise.  Rather, it should be said that he is “presumed innocent” because legal things are not always so clear.  We will just give him the benefit of the doubt until the proceedings are finished.  Even in the end, we cannot be sure justice is done.  This is a risk that mitigated only by the impartiality of following the procedure of a just law.  An eyewitness who is certain otherwise will have only the truth to satisfy him.


What entitles me to say so?  Being a citizen, one who is subject to the law should have access to it.  The tendency of professions to exclude outsiders, often by inventing a special vocabulary that only they know, should not extend to the law.  Instead, laws should be accessible and in plain English, at no more than a 12th grade level, so that all who are bound by them can clearly understand them.