[October 6, 2022] “The facts ma’am, just the facts.” Audiences herd police Sergeant Joe Friday on the 1950s TV series Dragnet, say this line at least once per episode. Despite always getting his man, Joe Friday was never involved in a trial by jury where the jury was deceived. In an article by Jon O. Newman titled The Deadly Art of Double Deception, we learn a bit about crowd psychology that is useful.
Agatha Christie’s 1924 short story, “The Witness for the Prosecution” employs an ingenious double deception that tells us about groups of people and how they might behave, perhaps differently if they were alone.
“Witness” is just twenty-six pages. Leonard Vole is on trial for murdering an elderly woman whose Will makes him the principal beneficiary. The woman’s maid reports, and ultimately testifies, that she heard a man speaking with her employer at 9:30 PM on the night of the murder. Leonard tells his solicitor that he returned home that night at 9:20 PM, and that his wife can verify the time, providing him with an alibi.
Questioned by Leonard’s solicitor, the “wife,” Romaine Heilger, states that she is an Austrian actress and that they are not married. She astonishes the solicitor by saying that Leonard returned home at 10:20 PM the night of the murder with blood on his coat and confessed his guilt.
On the eve of the trial, the solicitor receives a letter telling him to come to a rented room where someone has evidence that Romaine’s account is false. Accepting the invitation, he meets a mysterious woman who hands him a letter in Romaine’s handwriting. The letter, addressed to “Max,” her “Beloved,” says that she will have her revenge on Leonard by testifying that he came home that night with blood on him and confessed to the crime. “I shall hang him, Max.”
At trial Romaine repeats her damning accusation and steadfastly repeats it on cross-examination. Leonard’s barrister then produces her letter, which totally discredits her testimony. She breaks down on the stand, confesses to her lies, and confirms Leonard’s alibi.
With the accusation of the principal witness undermined, the jury quickly comes to the conclusion that Vole is innocent and acquits him. Afterward Leonard’s solicitor sees Romaine and realizes that, in disguise, she was the woman who handed him the fake letter. She explains her ploy: “I know something of the psychology of crowds. Let my evidence be wrung from me, as an admission, damning me in the eyes of the law, and a reaction in favor of the prisoner would immediately set in.”
The solicitor, appreciating the ploy, says he sees that Romaine knew Vole was innocent. “You do not see at all,” she replies. “I knew – he was guilty!”
The premise that undermining an accusation will induce a court to believe that an accused person is innocent is not grounded in logic. Although an accuser is lying, for whatever motive, the defendant may nonetheless be guilty. But the jury in “Witness” jumped to the conclusion that the defendant was innocent, exactly as Romaine had hoped.
The lesson is clear, do not be deceived by this logical fallacy.
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