Attorney Sam’s Take On Martin Luther King And Credibility
In the courts of justice, whether they be criminal or civil, the issue of
credibility is always imperative. Technically, of course, I have already
mis-stated the law. This is because a person’s credibility is not considered an
issue unless that person testifies as a witness.
At least, that is what the law says. However, I am referring to reality.
As you may know, this Boston criminal lawyer has years of experience
as a lecturer and trainer of law students and new lawyers alike. What I tell
my students is that anyone who is in front of the jury has their credibility
being considered by jurors throughout the trial. This is true whether the
person is a lawyer or a witness. Whether that person is testifying…or simply sitting down with counsel. The jury is always watching.
And, be assured, it is critical to the particular cause at issue.
However, credibility is a tricky thing. It is often effected by our various
prejudices and preconceived notions.
“Sam, weren’t’ t you going to be writing to Dr. King today instead of just
pontificating about how much you know about trials?”
Yes and no. There are many lessons we can learn from Dr. King and his
experiences. And some of them have to do with the criminal justice system.
After all, he took on the establishment. He broke laws…laws we now realize
were unjust. However, it took folks like Dr. King to challenge them in order
for us to begin our path of understanding equality.
A path that has not yet come to an end, I might add.
Dr. King served time in jail. No, he was not a violent felon, a drug dealer or
drunk driver. He did, however, commit crimes that were in existence at the
time. In fact, he wrote from jail, one of the his classic works now referred to
as the “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”.
While his positions resonated with some, they rankled many. Dr. King had two
strikes against his credibility from the start. First of all, he was black.
Second, he was in jail.
Our criminal justice system recognizes the prejudice of a jury knowing a
defendant is in jail. This is why defendants are not generally presented
to a jury in chains and in their prison uniforms.
A criminal defendant has, of course, one strike against his credibility when
taking the stand to begin with. It is one which prosecutors cling to as if their
lives depended on it. It is called “motive to lie”.
Every criminal defendant has an interest in the outcome of his or her trial.
Of course, most prosecutors will not only argue that the Defendant has every
motivation to lie, but the argument that the Commonwealth’s witnesses never
have such a motive is commonplace.
the overly-assumed sanctity of the Commonwealth’s witnesses aside, the
assumption that a criminal defendant must be lying because he is, after all, the
criminal defendant, sounds silly. However, it is an argument that does tend to
have an effect.
Dr. King was situated at a particular place and time. He was a special and
courageous free thinker who insisted on change and refused to use violence to
achieve his aims. To me, at least in that regard, he embodied the best that
this country stands for….sometimes despite itself.
Now, I admit that most criminal defendants, and the issues for which they face
trial, are hardly the same as Dr. King. However, the point I am trying to make is
still the same.
Namely, when on a jury, try not to fall into the unfair trap that the
prosecution often sets. Do not assume that, because the defendant is the
defendant, or because he either is doing or has done time, he is not worthy of
your belief. That sort of prejudice is unworthy of any free thinker. Further,
it is even rejected by the very criminal justice system prosecutors are sworn to
And if you are actually a criminal defendant?
Make sure you have an experienced attorney who realizes the importance of
fighting against that stereotype. Someone who knows ways in which it may be
combated, both on the road to trial and at the trial itself.