For people involved in the American justice system for the first time—be it civil or criminal—there’s a prevailing belief that if the opposing side doesn’t have pictures, video, DNA, or some other sort of physical evidence, then, well, “there’s no proof.” I hear this frequently from clients, and it’s a common misconception. In fact, in a majority of cases the evidence at issue generally consists of competing recollections of an event or a particular matter.
I once heard an unrepresented party make this statement to a judge in a pre-trial hearing, pleading to the judge why the opposing party’s case should be thrown out. I thought that the judge’s response to this party was pretty spot on. The judge, acknowledging that the other side had a different version of events from the party before him, said: “That’s why courthouses are built: to determine what actually happened and who’s telling the truth.”
That’s why courthouses are built. You can say that again.
Admittedly, it can escape all of us—lawyers and non-lawyers alike—that the “justice system” is kind of a misnomer. Often, unfortunately, what may result from a court proceeding hardly looks like justice to us, say for instance when the innocent are convicted of a crime they did not commit. Therefore, it’s more accurate to think of the courts as “dispute resolution centers”—a place where our disputes are civilly sorted out by our fellow citizens, and others determine what “the truth” of the matter is. This is why the United States Supreme Court has described the jury, in the context of the criminal trial system, as “the lie detector.”
People thrust into the court system for the first time should be mindful of this. We refer to juries as “fact finders” for a reason and that’s because we trust them to sort out the facts from the competing narratives. It’s not necessary that the jury have physical evidence to consider in every case; it is only necessary that they have firsthand accounts. And sometimes that can be proof enough!
Ryan James is an accomplished trial and appellate lawyer and the owner and founder of James Law, LLC. He has helped guide hundreds of clients through federal and state trial and appellate courts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.