Day in Court

I solemnly Swear that in the Cause now pending before this Court I will tell the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

Most of us have those wonderful nighttime dreams where we are suddenly confronted with some absolutely vital task (like brain surgery) we realize we know nothing about, are naked in a crowd of strangers, realize we overslept and missed the final, etc.  I suspect that this has to be called perfectly normal, whatever dark sides of ourselves we fear these dreams reveal.

Those are nightmares.  Then there are the daymares.

Daymares are those daytime fantasies that we have where we imagine what would happen if some major things go wrong in our lives.

As an example, take Buyer’s Remorse.  You have just put your signature on some purchase agreement that commits you to make huge payments on into the indefinite future.  Then the panic sets in.  You suddenly imagine what would happen if you lost your job and couldn’t make those eternal payments.  Within seconds you have extrapolated your fears into a crystal clear picture of yourself being cast out into the street.  Those near and dear to you are standing around looking reproachfully at you, the total failure.

Now, one can argue that this is pretty silly (although it delivers a pretty real terror).  And one can also argue that it, too, may point at some dark side of your psyche.  However, I think one can argue that this is another fairly normal type of lunacy.

Then there are those of us a little more over to the fringes of normal.  Given the slightest provocation, we can make a young career out of imagining ourselves in one impossible situation after another.  We play out endless scenarios in our minds, complete with dialogue, sound effects, and endless unfortunate endings.  All of them, I might add, based on fate pitilessly focusing on some (in our opinion) very real flaw in our characters.

For example:

Among those fantasies of mine is one where I find myself testifying in court.  I have somehow beheld something important and have been dragged into court to bear witness.  The court clerk asks me to raise my right hand and asks me to “solemnly swear…” and all the rest of it.

And I say, “No.”

And that is exactly what I would say.  It is what I would have to say.  There is no bloody way I could possibly swear to that stupid oath.

And this, you see, is based on one of my fatal flaws.

It is not just that I am more cantankerous than the average, although that is true.  Nor is it that I am an unreasonably literal-minded type who believes that words should be taken to mean what they say, although, again, that is true.

No.  I think this fantasy is based more on the fact that I have an archaic idea of personal honor.  I actually believe that promises mean something.  That when you make a promise you should be fully committed to keeping it.

And there is no way that I, or anyone else for that matter, could take that oath in an American court and be seriously committed to keeping it.

Don’t agree?

Okay.  Let’s take it from the start: I promise to tell the Truth.

I suppose you might call my first objection philosophical.  Truth is such a broad and complex idea that I think it should never have been made part of the oath.  No individual ever knows the Truth and can swear to tell it.

In English, Truth is a lot more than mere conformance to some set of facts.  It is certainly that, but it has a separate and very special existence of its own.  To quote the dictionary, it has an “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”  The simple fact is that none of us, peering through our little windows on the world, are ever able to perceive the Truth.  We assume that the little bit that we can see is part of the whole larger part we can’t see.  If you can’t know the Truth, how can you promise to tell it?

But there is more to it even than that.  To know the Truth means that we not only remember all the relevant pieces of the scene, but somehow preternaturally also know what will be important in the scene at a later time.  Somehow you not only know what happened, from all points of view, but you magically also know what its meaning will be when viewed from the future.

Then there is that problem of the language we use.  In the future someone may ask you, about some scene that took hours or milliseconds, “He just shot her.  Isn’t that the truth?”  As if everything that occurred could be accurately boiled down to a single, isolated, simplistic reality.  In the movie Absence of Malice, Sally Field plays a reporter who, having become a player in the scene instead of a simple witness, finds herself being interviewed by another reporter on her own paper.  Faced with a brutal, one sentence summary of events, she is asked, “That’s the truth, isn’t it?”  “No,” she is forced to reply, “but it’s accurate.”

Yeah…but.  I hear you say.  Isn’t that a trifle too abstract for everyday use?

Maybe so, but it still bothers me.  And I suspect I am not alone.  I believe it’s true that all of us have a gut level understanding that the real Truth is somehow more than what we can get from anyone’s testimony.  Truth is the larger picture the jury is trying to understand that lies behind all those short, declarative sentences.

But let’s suppose that we put our blinders on and pretend we accept a special courtroom definition of Truth: Legal Truth, we will say, is a simple conformance to facts, ignoring any outside considerations.

I think you still can’t legitimately take that Oath.

Let’s look at the rest of that line, …the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

Okay.  The Whole Truth.  Hmmm.  Got a week?

Now, you, naive soul that you are, might imagine that this is exactly what you will be able to do.  Just sit in the witness stand and tell what you remember in your own words.

Don’t bet on it.

This is called narrative testimony and lawyers and judges just hate narrative testimony with a bitter passion.  And here is the real crux of my problem.  The American courtroom is simply not a place where an accurate picture of events is presented and understood.  Lawyers don’t want to merely present evidence.  They want to control it.  Each side has an enormous interest in restricting exactly what is presented in a courtroom.  The last bloody thing they want is to have the whole story laid out before a jury.

Both sides intend to carefully select certain parts of the story and force the jury to make their decision on only those parts.  The judge will allow this because, a) we have an adversarial system which is supposed to guarantee each side is responsible for deciding what are the essential parts of the story, and, b) it makes for faster trials.

Justice, for which the judge is supposed to be responsible, has a special courtroom definition, too: Justice is that which will occur if everyone follows those rules.


So.  If you find yourself testifying you will almost certainly be allowed only to give short answers to specific questions.  What you will absolutely NOT be allowed to do is to tell the Whole Truth as you know it.

So how are you supposed to take that oath?

Reasonable people, even those who would privately agree with all of the above, will just hold their nose and take the oath.  To do anything else would be just stupid.  Right?

…So my recurring fantasy has this penultimate scene where I insist on trying to explain it all to the judge: “Well, Your Honor, the way I understand it is that the Prosecution misrepresents the evidence one way, the Defense misrepresents it the other and you make sure that all that misrepresenting is done according to the rules of the Lawyer’s Club.”

This fantasy always ends with a final scene of me looking mournfully out between bars contemplating the virtues of lying while this eight foot guy named Bubba contemplates my rear end.

There is a wonderful saying for all of us who feel compelled to fight the system: Never try and teach a Pig to sing.  It wastes your time and it annoys the Pig.

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