It has been the dream of science for a long time to be able to solve a crime by discovering when a witness is lying or telling the truth. In an earlier and more innocent time, the eye witness was thought to be the gold standard of courtroom evidence. But there, again, are those twin problems. Did the witness see what he thought he saw, and is he pulling our leg just a little about how well he remembers? Does he have issues he does not wish to discuss? I guess that’s three.
Imagine a courtroom in the year 1870. A prosecutor explores the recollections of a certain carter.
Mr. Query: Mr. Dray, do you recall having seen the defendant, Dr. Mudd?
Mr. Dray: Certainly. I saw him in the spring of 1866 in a tavern on Hollins St., in Baltimore.
Mr. Query: Was he alone?
Mr. Dray: No, Sir, he was with Mr. John Wilkes Booth!
Mr. Query: You are acquainted with Mr. Booth?
Mr. Dray: Only through the newspapers.
There are three very good reasons why a modern jury ought to giggle at such stuff. First, there is no reason to suppose that anyone could recall seeing a complete stranger four years since. Second, could a second stranger be accurately identified after four years, after seeing him on the front page of every paper? Third, why would anyone consider the recollections of a tired man drinking in a dark room?
Psychologists have done a thorough job of demonstrating the mutability of human memory. The gist is this: There doesn’t seem to be any difference to the brain between a memory and a story one has heard. But wouldn’t it be nice to know at least if a witness is trying to tell the truth?
In my youth there was a cowboy who had come west after an indifferent career in vaudeville as a ventriloquist. While looking for work, “riding the chow line,” he came upon a campfire late one night. He sang a little tune to avoid startling the camper. At last he dismounted to find an elderly Indian stirring a small pot of beans. He asked if he could join the company. The old fellow invited him to share his supper and fire with the understanding that some entertainment would be in order.
After a grateful plate, the cowboy asked the old man if he would mind if his animals were interviewed. “Good animals,” he said, “go ahead.”
So the cowboy addressed himself to a bandy-legged pinto gelding. “Tell me, Horse, “how do you like working for this old fellow?’
From beyond the firelight the horse snuffled, pawed the dust and said, “Its not so bad, really, he gives me water when we come to it and he rubs me down pretty good before we bed down.”
The old Indian was pleased, but not a little surprised. The cowboy wondered if he could have a word or two with the nearby dog. “Sure! Good dog!”
“So tell me, old pup, how you get along with the Indian? Is he a good master?” The cowboy leaned back a little from the firelight and let the dog have his say. “Every time that old Indian shoots anything, he always gives me all the good parts, the stuff that smells good, the stuff you can chew on! He never shouts at me or kicks me.” The old man regarded his friend fondly. “That’s a good dog.”
The cowboy leaned into the firelight and searched his new friend’s face. “You don’t mind if I talk to your sheep, do you?”
“Sheep Lie!” said the old man, and turned in for the night.