Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Last week, in a sickening spectacle, grownups behaved as though a vague, wholly unproven story involving teenagers 30+ years ago is relevant to whether a candidate is fit to be a US Supreme Court judge.
Nine years ago, in the early months of this blog, I wrote a post titled Global Warming and ‘My Cousin Vinny.‘ An American Bar Association publication had recently ranked this 1992 Hollywood comedy third among “the 25 greatest legal movies.”
It contains, said the lawyers, the “best-ever introduction to the rules of criminal procedure.” In other words, it brilliantly dramatizes the importance of following strict rules whenever accusations of a criminal nature are leveled.
These rules are the best way we have to sort wheat from chaff. Before society punishes someone, there must be genuine evidence of that person’s guilt. There must be cold, hard facts.
Many people have the ability to tell persuasive stories. Some of them are natural or trained performers/actors. Some are natural or trained salespeople. Others may have formally studied psychology, hypnotism, or the principles of persuasion.
Stories are not facts. My Cousin Vinny demonstrates that every trial begins with a prosecutor presenting a persuasive story. The question is whether that story holds up under vigorous cross-examination.
In the film, the case against two young men appears damning. Three eye-witnesses, who have no reason to lie, insist these men murdered a convenience store clerk.
But all it takes is a few pointed questions to cast matters in an entirely different light. Via cross-examination, the defense lawyer establishes that one of the witnesses is mistaken about the timing of events, the second had his view obstructed by trees and a dirty window, and the third suffers from impaired vision.
Astonishingly quickly, the apparently open-and-shut case evaporates. A convincing story is utterly discredited.
Last week, a sickening spectacle took place in the United States. Grownups behaved as though a vague, wholly unproven story involving teenagers 30+ years ago is relevant to whether a candidate is fit to be a Supreme Court judge.
The accuser told a story. Many people, including professional journalists, announced that they believed this story and that the judge should therefore be disqualified.
In a civilized society, we do not burn witches – and we do not punish people on the basis of stories.
|My Cousin Vinny|
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