Dismissing Witness Testimony

Dismissing Witness Testimony November 13, 2019


James Jordan and a Smith family reunion
In this historic photograph taken by James Jordan, the family of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith gather on the set of the Interpreter Foundation’s Witnesses film project.


For some reason, my little post on “Running with the golden plates” has inflamed a certain tiny sector of the web that I like to watch, and they’ve been pulling out the big guns (e.g., even the eminent American philosopher and historian Mark Twain; who ever saw that coming?) to demolish the testimony of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  They also don’t like the Interpreter Foundation’s Witnesses film at all, having (of course) never seen it but pronouncing it, among other things, stupid, annoying, and dishonest.  I’m absolutely shocked.  I had so confidently expected their enthusiastic endorsement!


Anyhow, one of the angles of response particularly amused me, so I offer here a brief repurposing of its fundamental argument, in story form:


Laying out the State’s case against Mr. Robert Jones on charges of capital homicide, prosecutor Richard Anderson called eleven eyewitnesses, of solid reputation, undisputed sanity, and good character, who all testified under oath that they clearly saw the defendant, Mr. Jones, pump six revolver rounds into Mr. Chauncey Gardner while Mr. Gardner lay on the ground pleading for his life.  They all also reporting hearing the defendant screaming “Die, Chauncey!  Die!”


When the jury returned a verdict of “Not guilty,” however, jurors explained to those who questioned them, first of all, that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and, secondly, that it was this particular paragraph from the closing statement of criminal defense attorney William Russell that convinced them to acquit Robert Jones:


“Perhaps one should not expect that the prosecutor’s case would be anything other than an attempt to strengthen the jury’s faith in the guilt of the defendant.  The prosecutor’s argument will be convincing to those already certain that my client killed Mr. Gardner and that the State’s eleven witnesses saw him do it. And even detached observers will probably be convinced by the State’s contention that the witnesses were honest men and women who sincerely believe what they said and who have probably stuck consistently by their story.  But Anderson is really trying to have us conclude more than this.  He would have the jurors be convinced that, because these witnesses are honest and because they reaffirmed their testimony when asked to do so, they actually saw and heard my client in the supposed act of murdering Chauncey Gardner.  I believe that Anderson — like his eleven witnesses — is an honest and sincere man when he declares: ‘Reason dictates that their testimonies, given under oath here before you, must be taken at face value.’  But I don’t believe that his argument by itself requires this conclusion.  After all, spiritual truths such as ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ must be spiritually verified.’  Believers — and, for that matter, witnesses — must make a ‘leap of faith,’ apprehending with their ‘spiritual eyes’ rather than with their ‘natural eyes.'”


Asked, after his release from jail, what he intended to do now, Mr. Jones, the former defendant, indicated that he was going to Disneyland.  It was, he said, Chauncey Gardner’s dying wish for him.



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