In the Courtroom, Narratives Carry the Day, Not the Facts

Rabia Chaudry’s words here on our judicial system are just too important not to be read and shared by everyone.  Please take a moment to read and digest these words; they speak a profound (and disturbing) truth about how our court systems really work.  

We like to think that “just the facts, ma’am” and “the letter of the law” are what drive and guide juries as they make their decisions in courtrooms around this country.  But the truth is much less comforting.  Humans are narrative creatures- we understand things through stories.  It’s why we dream, literally.  All the “facts”- stimuli we experience through our five senses throughout the day- are processed and stored while we sleep.  Instead of (like a computer might) placing these various and diverse events into their storage compartments, our brains create stories wherein all those crazy events collide and converge in a way that (to our dreaming mind) actually makes some sense.  That’s narrative.  A whole bunch of disparate points of information, disconnected and various, that our mind makes linear, coherent (at least apparently), and digestible as a story (dream).

A similar process, if you will, occurs during a trial that can span days and weeks, even months.  The is juror absorbing all of this (often complex) testimony, exhibits, facts, opinions, this and that, is expected at the end of that long process to (basically from memory) decide what the “truth” is… what really happened, beyond a reasonable doubt.  Because we are not computers or machines, our brains want there to be cohesion and so usually whichever side (prosecution or defense) that can do the best to win the narrative war, wins the case.  The problem with this reality is that the narrative (of either side) may or may not very well coincide with the actual reality of what actually happened during the “crime.”  Sometimes, too often I’d purport, the narrative first concocted by the investigating police and put into their report gets either embellished or honed by the prosecuting attorney, thus carrying forward whatever narrative it is into trial- whether or not the actual facts of the case are substantively and accurately reflected therein.

Understanding this process, it’s easy to see how this narrative, this story then, in many ways becomes the case itself.  Competing narratives, not the facts of the case- which story will win the imagination of the jury- ends up defining the adjudication process.  This is our judicial system in a nutshell.

I encourage you to listen to this episode of Undisclosed on your own.  Consider the great metaphor (to this very point) that Colin Miller refers to in the beginning of the podcast, highlighting a scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pointillism.

Studies actually show that at the end of the day it’s not facts that convince people.

Facts don’t change minds, and facts don’t even help people make them up-

it’s stories, narratives- that’s what people rely on- and in the courtroom-

whoever tells a better story, whoever creates the best overall impression of what may have happened,

wins.

…Even if the facts contradict that narrative.

And once there’s a conviction the battle gets harder, because the chances are winning an appeal are often slim to none.

– Rabia Chaudry – Undisclosed Podcast – S2, Ep. 22 “The Trial”

 

*****

Tezi and I discuss criminal justice reform often.  Join us in helping to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and the distressing shortcomings of our criminal justice system.  We do believe that improvements can be made, that reforms can help people, especially those already or soon-to-be caught up in the system.

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