Thursday, March 1, 2012

Caught in a Lie

lie [lahy]  noun, verb, lied, ly·ing.

1. a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture: His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.
3. an inaccurate or false statement.
4. the charge or accusation of lying: He flung the lie back at his accusers.
verb (used without object)
5. to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.
6. to express what is false; convey a false impression.

Prosecutors are routinely reprimanded when they use this word during a closing argument.  That's especially true when we call a defendant's version of events a lie.  Many New York courts say it's prosecutorial misconduct to call a defendant a liar during a closing argument.  Sometimes, that misconduct allows an appellate court to throw a conviction out and grant a new trial.  Imagine that.  After somehow finding twenty or so witnesses, coordinating schedules, securing their testimony, and getting twelve strangers to agree on a verdict of guilt, the court tells you to do it again.

Every person on the planet probably utters the word at least once a day.  So why do the courts despise the word?  Attorneys are allowed to call a witness's version of events into question, call it unbelievable, not worthy of belief, not credible, or any other permutation.  But not the big "L" word.

Part of the courts' reasoning is that calling someone a liar is an attorney expressing their opinion in the case.  That is something attorneys are not allowed to do.  The jury is supposed to be swayed by evidence, not an attorney's belief.

The courts consider use of the word "lie" inflammatory as well.  Calling a testifying defendant a liar is akin to saying he committed perjury.  We wouldn't normally be allowed to hurl accusations at a defendant without proof, so the courts tell us the word isn't appropriate.

But what's the difference when we use words like "unbelievable" and "simply can't be true"?  Don't these phrases really mean "lie"?

Words are a trial attorney's tools.  We refine, sharpen, and sling them together to convince jurors that our side is correct.  Sometimes attorneys cross the lines of legal argument and move into inflammatory rhetoric.  Many times, however, we find out we crossed the line when an appellate court tells us.

My personal favorite line that didn't use the word lie?  A prosecutor said on summation, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's surprising the Bible didn't burst into flames when the defendant put his hand on it and swore to tell the truth."

What do you think?  Is using words like "lie" or "liar" crossing the line?  Or should it be fair game? 

1 comment:

  1. That's a hilarious line. Well I work in the legal field so I totally get this but I disagree in terms of opening and closing arguments. Clearly, those are times when the prosecutor is addressing the jury, I personally think they should be able to express themselves even if it is a little inflammatory. I mean you want a prosecutor who is passionate! But I guess the thing is where do you draw the line? How much inflammatory rhetoric is really acceptable? It is a slippery slope!