PART V : THE TRIAL
Assuming that a high-profile murder case can make it past trial preparation in reasonably useful shape, it finally goes to trial.
So, the question needs be asked: what IS a trial ?
To the gut-reaction public, a trial is an action by which the public’s judgment of the outcome is confirmed. If the public thinks an accused guilty, the trial is supposed to find him gulty. If the public thinks an accused is not guilty, the trial’s job is to find him or her nor guilty.
In the pre-Civil Rights South, trials, of Black people most of all, were exactly what I have said above, except that a finding of not guilty was never an option. To bring an accused to trial was to obtain a guilty verdict. No more, no less. Today we do it differently. We are prepared — so we say — to accord the accused a fair trial, complete with defense lawyers paid from public funds if need be and a jury carefully selected by both sides. Rules of evidence are accepted. The jury is allowed to deliberate for as long as it pleases them. Yet a verdict of guilty is expected, in the end, just as back in the old South.
A trial, however, is not that AT ALL. A trial is a procedure for getting at the truth of the matter, let the chips fall as they may. Impartiality is the guide. A trial has no expected outcome other than that the outcome will be as close to the truth as is feasaible given that human minds and procedures only approximate.
As this is what a trial is, it’s not at all a given that the public agrees that there should be trials of high-profile murder cases. The public says it does, but its actions in high-profile criminal cases say otherwise.
Nonetheless, we have trials, and those whom we entrust with governance in our society are unshakably committed to having trials and ensuring their fairness. Grumble though we might, we at least allow trials to take place without interference. Court TV, no doubt, has helped to give the public an interest in letting trials take place according to the rules. By “rules,’ we mean the presentation of evidence, its cross examination, and attorneys’ summations before and after the presentation of evidence.
Whole libraries of hornbooks have been written on the Law of Evidence. (The best is the classic treatise, Wigmore on Evidence.) We cannot do an extended discussion of Evidence Law here, but suffice to say that it includes all the familiar — but very difficult to apply — “Law and Order” cliches : the rule against Hearsay, the admissibility of death bed speech, forensic findings, surveillance camera footage, witness testimony, confessions, authentication of records, evidence illegally obtained, telephone messages, and the like.
The basic rule of admissibility is this : does the evidence help to get at the truth ? Or is it prejudicial, or irrelevant, or self-interested, or otherwise unhelpful ?
Does it go without saying that conjecture is not evidence ? An expert giving expert testimony is permitted to give an opinion. No one else may do so. Can I add that race prejudice abiout the accused, and such like, are not evidence ?
Unfortunately, those of us who watch a high-profile trial on TV, or read about it in the news, have nothing to offer a trial except opinion, conjecture, or even, for some of us, race prejudice. Because that is all that we have; because we are not even in the courtroom, where presentations play out differently than as filtered by media, and where boredom is the usual sound; because we feel strongly about the ccas — if not, it would not be high profile — we tend to decide the outcome of a trial on grounds that must play no part in that trial ! Ironic, isn’t it ? But none theless toxic to the administration of a trial.
Thus the dilemma that continues present in today’s criminal law : we say we wnat fair and impartial trials, but we do not. We say we want the jury to reach ITS verdict, but in fact we wnat it to reach OUR verdict.
We want these things vehemently, noisily, frigheningly.
Given what we are like in this regard, it’s a wonder that trials — real trials — exist at all. Perhaps it’s the innate skepticism that also resides in our souls, along with the conjectural certainty, that gives trials room to breathe, and flower, and produce — one hopes — their fruit of truth.
—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere