Monday, February 13, 2006

Witnesses and Inconsistencies in Their Statements

Every now and then I come across a legal case that should be of interest to ufologists, not because it deals with UFOs, per se, but because of the principles involved, or the results.

For example, here are the relevant portions of R. v. Hechavarria [2006 O.J. 450], a recent Ontario Court of Appeals case that I read today (I have bolded the bits that apply to ufology):

"[1] The appellant appeals his conviction on three counts of robbery and two counts of using a firearm while committing the robberies.

[2] It was alleged that the appellant and his accomplice robbed the three complainants while driving around in search for money and drugs. The case depended entirely on the testimony of the complainants with no confirmatory evidence.

[3] There were numerous inconsistencies in the evidence of the three complainants. They included inconsistencies about: the description of a knife and its use, the attendance of an ATM machine, a meeting to buy a bicycle, an attempt to escape, assaults on the complainants, the descriptionof the gun used in the robberies, and a drug deal.

[4] It was clear that the complainants had lied to the police in their descriptions of the robberies.

[5] The complainants were extensively cross-examined on all issues. The appellant and his accomplice did not testify.

[6] It was alleged that there was an opportunity of collusion among the three complainants before and during the trial..."

Now, Hechavarria, understandably, appealed. After all, there were inconsistencies in the testimony of the complainants, and the complainants had lied to the police.

The result of the appeal? The conviction was confirmed (and Hechavarria's sentence was increased).

"Huh?" the non-lawyer might say. "That sounds manifestly unfair, and unjust!"

Perhaps, but appearances can be deceiving.

From the reasons given by the Court of Appeal:

"The trial judge was of the view that the inconsistencies were essentially immaterial on essential matters. In other words, they did not go to the core issues of whether the appellant used a gun and demanded money from the complainants... The trial judge [was] entitled to accept their explanations for their initial lies to the police and to find that, on essential matters, they were telling the truth in their evidence at trial."

What is key here, in ufological as well as criminal justice terms, is that not every statement made by a witness needs to be consistent, either with his own statement, or that of others. In short, a witness is entitled to make mistakes. They can even lie to the police (although never on the witness stand), so long as they can provide a good reason for why they did so when challenged on it at trial.

Remember, this was a criminal case. The standard was "beyond a reasonable doubt." There was NO confirmatory "hard" evidence. And yet the accused was still convicted.

So, you might say, maybe Michael Salla et al aren't so wrong about their various whistleblowers (like Phil Corso) after all. Their inconsistencies aren't that important. If they've lied here and there, then it can be overlooked.

To reach that conclusion, however, would be to ignore the most important line of the decision.

Which line was it?

This one:

"The complainants were extensively cross-examined on all issues."

And that's the problem with the "whistleblowers" put forward by Salla et al - there has been no "extensive cross-examination" by objective questioners of their various claims, and their various inconsistencies. There has definitely not been an impartial judge sitting there determining whether the whistleblowers can be believed or not (in the case of ufology, the impartial judge would be effective peer review). The best we can do is to have guys like Kevin Randle, Brad Sparks and Stan Friedman point out the inconsistencies from written transcripts of interviews conducted by others, usually exopolitical types who have a bias in favour of believing the stories of the whistleblowers (I once asked Salla if there were any whistleblowers he didn't believe - he couldn't think of one). Even then, the exopolitical types simply brush off these critiques. In the process, they seek to act as both the defence attorney and the judge.

So, R. v. Hechavarria if of no real use to the exopolitics types unless they change their methodology and relationship with other, more skeptical, ufologists.

It is, however, applicable to UFO incident witnesses who may have inconsistencies in their statements.

To the debunkers, who would simply focus in on those inconsistencies, I offer R. v. Hechavarria as proof that, in a court of law, the question is not whether there are inconsistencies, but whether there are any inconsistencies that are relevant to the issue at hand. If a person says he saw a UFO, and in his first statement states that it occurred at 5:00 pm, and then in a later statement states 5:15 pm, that inconsistency may be irrelevant if the details of his sighting remain consistent in both statements.

To the believers, however, I offer R. v. Hechavarria for another purpose - to show that only by rigourously examining the statements of witnesses (which believers often decry as unfair) can we render those statements worthy of consideration. The statements of witnesses cannot be simply accepted at face value. They must be probed carefully, and methodically. The witness must be questioned, and challenged on any inconsistencies. Only after this process will a statement emerge that can withstand close scrutiny from others.

Without this process, the statement, no matter how sincere the witness seems, is essentially worthless.

Paul Kimball

1 comment:

Greg Bishop said...

Hey Paul,

Nice meeting with you in Laughlin.

I had to comment on this post, since I have dealt with the trial/ ufology model in the past. The fact that you included Michael Salla perked me up right away.

As far as I'm concerned, Salla is not only barking up the wrong tree, the tree doesn't even exist. I had a lengthy back-and-forth with him on the UFO Updates list a few months back. The whole thing came to a halt when he presented me with a statement that went something like "A lot of people have problems with my method because it doesn't rely on things like confirming testimony or verifiable evidence."

Amazed, I wrote back that this sort of "research" was something I wish I was involved in, since it has the wonderfully liberating quality of holding you responsible only for your beliefs and ad-hoc theories, and doesn't require anything as boring and time-consuming as finding multiple witnesses and digging through libraries and document requests.


Salla does strike me though as the type who deosn't let a difference of opinion bother him--he'd still have a beer with you.

Your points on the trial/ufology analogy show great insight and thought. There is a lesson here for all of us. This comparison has come up in dicussions I've had with others. The point is usually something to the effect of "If all of this evidence was presented in court, there would be no question about the 'reality' of UFOs."

The problem with this line of reasoning is it is often presented by someone who has a prima-facie belief in the existence of something which includes the term "unidentfied" in its name, and the ususal corollary of belief in the ETH. For most of the public, and the unfortunate arbiters of consenus opinion(scientists, scholars, press, etc.) the simple existence of a reality behind the UFO subject is at best, an open question.

Robberies, murders, and other crimes are things that everyone can agree occur with unfortuante regularity. Many Ufologists forget that not everyone shares their reality tunnel. Proof of a felony is not the same as proof of aliens, whatever they may be.

Greg Bishop