The Boy Who Cried Wolf

“Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”  My son is four years old now, soon to be five.  He’s gotten into the habit of coming in while I’m working on the computer and telling me “daddy, dinner’s ready!”  After a few times of walking into the kitchen to see dinner still cooking on the stove, I’m thinking I need some independent confirmation before I believe that dinner is ready.  I ask him, “are you telling the truth?” and of course he responds “yes!”

Last night I was reading The Boy Who Cried Wolf to him before bed, and it occurred to me that this story contains a most basic explanation of how to demonstrate the un-truthfulness of a witness’ testimony.  Not that this is always the goal of cross-examination, but when a witness is not being truthful about something critical to the case it becomes an important part of the cross-examination.

How do you prove that a witness is lying?  In some cases it can be proven by extrinsic evidence or testimony of other witnesses who can contradict the first witness’ untruthful statement.  Or we can show bias or motive – demonstrate to the jury the witness’ reason for lying.  If the witness has not been consistent in his or her statements we can impeach the witness with prior inconsistent statements – video, audio, witness interviews pre-trial, or statements they have made to other people.

But if these tools are not available, or in addition to these tools, can we show that the witness is simply someone who lies – even if we are unable to prove the witness is lying about the most important fact, what if we are able to show that the witness is lying about other facts?  If the witness has lied about other facts, has given inconsistent statements on other subjects, and can be impeached on other statements that he has made to the jury, why should the jury believe anything that the witness says?

The Old Man’s advice to the young shepherd boy, as he laments the loss of his sheep to the wolf, and wonders why the village-folk did not come to help him, is as valuable a lesson for cross-examination as it is for my son: “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”  If you are not a consistently honest person, how can we know that you are telling the truth?

2 Responses to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf

  • Tony Lawless
    8 years ago

    Of course, if we were strict about this, no one’s testimony would be believable since everyone has lied at some point. Proving that someone is a liar is a finer art than showing that someone does lie. I think this is something open to abuse. Witness Dominique Strauss-Kahn who got off on this principle. Just because someone has lied about something important in the past does not mean that that person is lying about an equally important point now. In US law, however, it seems it does.

  • Thankfully some bloggers can write. Thanks for this read!!!

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