Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Over the past three decades, I’ve sat in many courtrooms and watched witnesses stand before a judge and raise their right hand and say “I do.”
And over the decades, I’ve become increasingly cynical about this ritual.
The fact of the matter is our legal system doesn’t want the “whole truth.” It wants some of the facts some of the time.
A case in point is a trial I’m covering this week in Waterloo, Iowa.
On Sept. 17, 1990, the body of 9-year-old Jennifer Ann Lewis was found burning on the edge of a school playground in Davenport, Iowa. She had been raped and strangled. Someone drenched her 70-pound body with gasoline and ignited it.
I was one of the first people to find the body that terrible night. Flames were still licking the corpse when I arrived on the scene, notebook in hand.
I was looking for facts. I’ve stuck with the case and I am still seeking the facts.
But facts in themselves don’t equate to truth.
Despite what lawyers and judges may tell juries, truth is something they cannot find by examining what is presented in a courtroom. Truth remains an elusive ideal in this temporal world. In our legal system – or any system created by man – it will remain elusive.
Truth really is a spiritual question, rather than a mere legal one.
For example, within days, police officers investigating the murder of the Rock Island girl focused their inquiry on Stanley Carter Liggins.
Why? Well, he was out on bond for sexually abusing a different 9-year-old girl and according to testimony he knew both of Jennifer’s parents because he was selling them cocaine.
Both of those facts might seem to contribute to a better understanding of a larger truth.
But the courts didn’t see it that way. It is information jurors will never hear.
During his first trial, jurors were told Liggins was a drug dealer, but the Iowa Supreme Court threw that conviction out in part because it said the jury should never have been told.
A little bit of “truth” was whittled away by judicial fiat. How can we call it “truth” when it isn’t based on all of the facts? We shouldn’t.
Liggins was tried a second time and convicted.
The theory has always been that our adversarial process leads to the truth, but common sense tells you it doesn’t. At best, it provides selective facts in which to render a judgement.
In the Liggins case, decades passed and again an appeals court granted him a new trial on the grounds that relevant police reports were not turned over to the defense and prosecutors did not disclose a key witness was a paid police informant.
The defendant believed that jurors had been denied facts contributing to that ever elusive “truth.” Judges agreed. They ruled that jurors needed to hear more.
Prosecutors in his third trial sought to inform jurors of Liggins’ past as a pedophile. A judge ruled they couldn’t. And jurors were unable to reach a verdict.
If anything, these wranglings underscore the imperfections of our system and how it isn’t so much about truth as it is about determining a verdict.
On Monday, a fourth jury began deliberating on the case. The judge urged jurors to use their common sense. Lawyers extolled jurors as the finders of “truth.”
But what exactly is truth?
Webster’s defines it as: “a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality.”
As I write these words, I don’t know what jurors will decide. They remain behind closed doors deliberating and seeking “truth.” All we can ask of them is to do their best reaching a fair verdict based on the evidence presented. They are finders of fact, not truth.
I’m certain of one thing this Lenten season. Truth is not something found in any courtroom.
I find Truth in the One who said: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. [email protected]