Spotting Lies in Court

Spotting lies in court

The challenges for judges and jurors to evaluate truthfulness and deception in the courtroom

Spotting Lies in Court

The challenges of spotting lies in court

The odds are against judges and jurors

What I learned in teaching police, judges, and attorneys over the years suggested a wisecrack- the criminal justice system must have been designed by someone who wanted to make it impossible to spot lies from demeanor. At present, spotting lies in court is very, very difficult to do without prior–and proper–guidance to support a fair and thorough evaluation before delivering a verdict. 

Preparing and rehearsing a lie

The guilty suspect is given many chances to prepare and rehearse their replies before any truthfulness can be evaluated by jury or judge, subsequently increasing their confidence and decreasing their fear of being detected. Score one against the judge and jury.

Decreasing intensity of emotion over time

The direct examination and cross examination take place months, if not years, after the incident, thereby blunting emotions associated with the criminal event. Score two against the judge and jury.

Starting to believe the lies in court

Because of the long time delay before the beginning of the trial, the suspect will have repeated their false accounts so often that they may start to believe their own false story; when that happens they are, in a sense, not lying when they testify. Score three against the judge and jury.

Simple answers

When challenged in cross examination, the defendant typically has been prepared if not rehearsed by their own attorney, and the questions asked often allow a simple yes or no reply. Score four against the judge and jury.

The fearful innocent

And then there is the innocent defendant who comes to trial terrified of being disbelieved. Why should the jury and judge believe them, if the police, prosecutor, and the judge, in pretrial moves for dismissal, did not? The signs of fear of being disbelieved can be misinterpreted as the guilty person fearing being caught. Score five against the judge and jury.

Catching the liar early on

While the odds are against the finders of fact, as the judge and jury are called, being able to rely much upon demeanor, that is not so for the person who does the initial interview or interrogation. Usually it is the police, or sometimes, in cases of child abuse, a social worker. These are the people who have the best chance of being able to tell from behavioral cues if someone is lying. A liar has usually had no chance to rehearse, and is most likely to be either afraid of being caught or guilty about the wrong action. While the police and social workers may be well intentioned, most are not well trained in how to ask unbiased and non-leading questions. They might have not been taught how to evaluate behavioral cues to truthfulness and lying, and they may be biased in their typical presumption. They might think that nearly everyone they see is guilty, and everyone is lying, and that may well be so for the great majority of those they interrogate. When I first gave my lie catching test to police officers I found that many of them had judged every person they saw on the videotape as lying. “No one ever tells the truth,” some told me. Fortunately, juries are not continually exposed to criminal suspects, and they are therefore not as likely to presume the suspect must be guilty.

Train yourself

Whether in the courtroom or in your own home, prepare yourself to more accurately evaluate truthfulness by learning more about deception, the art of deception detection and guarding against common errors in detecting lies. You can also use Dr. Ekman’s online tools to train yourself to detect micro and subtle expressions, one of the key indicators that an emotion is being concealed, and a possible clue to deceit.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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