The Ring of Truth

Truth is Power, but you can't just "tell the truth" -- you must tell the truth effectively.

Editorial By Hans Sherrer, Guest Writer

Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted, Volume 1, Issue 7

Defense lawyer Gerry Spence has accomplished something that is as remarkable as it is obscure. In a career spanning nearly 50 years, he has never lost a criminal case. [1]

Mr. Spence duly recognizes that hard work, meticulous preparation and his commanding presence have contributed to his success. However, he mainly credits a secret weapon that prosecutors haven't found a way to stop: he tells the truth to jurors as plainly and openly as he can. Why is telling the truth so effective? He believes it is because people are desperately hungry to hear the truth. In our modern hectic world,  the truth is frequently drowned out by the endless lies of advertisers, politicians, public relations spokespeople, and many others.

In spite of the morass of falsehoods in which we live, Gerry Spence has an almost mystical faith in the ability of "common" people to discern the truth of a situation when it is effectively presented to them. He relies on the protective shield provided by the irresistible power of the truth to resonate within jurors. He calls this phenomenon the ring of truth. [2]

Mr. Spence puts his money where his mouth is by staking the lives of the people he defends on his belief in the built-in truth detector of jurors. The hundreds of times he has won by relying on the ability of jurors to determine the truth of his clients case shows that his faith in them isn't misplaced.

However, a disturbing paradox is raised by Gerry Spence's winning case after case, year after year, in state and federal courts across America by forthrightly presenting the truth to jurors. It means the government and its prosecutors, who are his opponents consistently try to win by using deceptive tactics. We have all had a chance to see this process at work thanks to national reporting on the activities of special prosecutor Ken Starr and the career prosecutors who have assisted him for the last five years. It has given all Americans a birds-eye view of the devious and amoral tactics that Mr. Spence has successfully countered for decades by relying on his skill to present the truth in court.

The cat was recently let out of the bag that prosecutors are well aware of their unethical and even criminal conduct. Whatever doubts anyone may have about this were dispelled by their reaction to an appeals court ruling in U. S. v. Singleton (1998). [3] Unlike Caesar's wife, prosecutors have no interest in preserving even the appearance that they are above suspicion.

To briefly summarize her case, Sonya Singleton was prosecuted in federal court on drug-related charges. Federal prosecutors promised three separate benefits to her codefendant if he would testify against her in court. There is a law that makes it a federal crime for anyone to directly or indirectly, give, offer or promise anything of value to any person in exchange for testimony in a judicial proceeding. [4] The activity described in this statute as illegal is known as bribery. This statute codifies what has been known for thousands of years: bribing people to provide testimony has a corrupting influence on what they say. [5] The payer is rewarded, and rewards the payee, for tailoring what is said.

Ms. Singleton's lawyers made a motion to prohibit her codefendant from testifying against her. They argued that his prospective testimony was tainted by his acceptance of the prosecution's inducements that were tantamount to a bribe. The prosecutors countered this argument by claiming they were exempt from the bribery statute. The trial judge sided with the government and declined to grant the defense motion. Her codefendant was allowed to testify against her and she was convicted. In her appeal, Ms. Singleton raised the issue that the trial court's denial of her motion was a substantial error that might have affected the outcome of her trial.

A three-judge panel for the federal 10th Circuit unanimously agreed with her. They declared that prosecutors are not immune from the federal criminal statute prohibiting the bribery of witnesses. [6] Their decision was a recognition that offering a prosecution witness immunity, a more lenient sentence, or special treatment in exchange for favorable testimony, is a form of bribery that is an open invitation to perjury and the conviction of defendants who aren't guilty.

Instead of accepting that at a minimum they should be bound by the same high standards of conduct expected of everyone else in American society, the U. S. Department of Justice appealed the decision. By opposing the decision of the three-judge panel, prosecutors revealed that in their quest to win at all costs they are knowingly engaging in such indefensible activities as obstruction of justice, witness tampering, subornation of perjury, bribery, and openly condoning perjury by prosecution witnesses. [7] This attitude of being above the ethical rules of society was perhaps most prominently displayed for all of us to see in the O. J. Simpson case. Policeman Mark Fuhrman was one of the government's star witnesses. He was prosecuted and convicted after he committed perjury numerous times on the witness stand before a worldwide television audience. However, he didn't act in isolation. Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden went unpunished, even though they were aware of his perjured testimony and they did nothing to stop it.

After Singleton's case was reviewed by all the judges in the 10th Circuit, the majority voted to reverse the three-judge panel's decision. Using a judicial sidestep, they ignored the ethical and legal issue that bribing prosecution witnesses has an inevitably corrupting influence on their testimony. Instead, the appellate judges essentially relied on the logic that it is common for prosecutors to offer bribes in exchange for favorable testimony, and it wasn't up to them to change a practice of such long standing. [8] Prosecutors were thus granted an exemption to openly engage in a criminal activity that is prohibited to everyone else in the U.S., precisely because it is known to corrupt the integrity of the judicial process.

Singleton's lawyers appealed the 10th Circuit's decision to the U. S. Supreme Court. On June 21, 1999, the Court let the ruling stand by refusing to hear her appeal. Prosecutors all over the U. S. breathed a sigh of relief that they could continue bribing witnesses to commit perjury in court whenever a defendant's lack of guilt might get in the way of their conviction. An important cog in the prosecutorial assembly line that processes defendants like widgets in a factory was permitted to continue running smoothly. [9]

The Supreme Court's decision is a blow to those interested in prosecutors being held to some semblance of honesty in the presentation of their cases. However, it is indicative of why Gerry Spence's reliance on the truth has so much power. When a lone individual's freedom is endangered by an assault against them by the awesome might of the state, the ring of truth can be the most effective defense.

Acting as a witness to the truth is also a powerful way to publicize the plight of those who have suffered egregiously at the hands of the "justice" system. This is now being done in the pages of Justice Denied and other print and online publications.

The saying that "the darkness of night cannot conceal the light of a single candle" helps explain why revealing the truth doesn't necessarily rely on the number of people who do it. Only one person, or a few, can effectively do so. This is the enduring lesson of The Emperor's New Clothes. Although a children's fable, it expresses the important principle that one person publicly revealing a long-hidden secret can have an impact on the way large numbers of people see something.

To the Emperor, the little boy who blew the whistle on his lack of clothing was a traitor.To those who had lived with the lie of having to pretend that reality was different from what they saw it to be, he was a hero.

Justice Denied and other publications are acting like the little boy in the fable. They are systematically exposing to the light of day the dirty hidden secret that wrongful convictions are not a rare occurrence, but almost the norm. Private sources, as well as studies by agencies of the federal government are revealing that upwards of 25% of convictions may be erroneous. This is a national scandal.

Readers of Justice Denied have an opportunity to hear the ring of truth in the stories it relates of people harmed by one of the most horrible injustices imaginable -- being wrongly branded as a criminal. As the Singleton case emphasizes, this is often accomplished by prosecutors who cultivate witnesses to commit perjury.

Fax machines, e-mail, cell phones and the Internet eliminate the need to have a multimillion dollar budget and a large staff of people to share ideas with millions of people. Modern means of communication are contributing to leveling the playing field of information distribution.

Look at Matt Drudge. Starting as one man with a computer working out of his apartment bedroom, he had the courage to expose the Monica Lewinsky story to the ring of truth. History will record that he played a key role in President Clinton's impeachment. In the same way, Zack Exley is one man with a computer who is proving to be a thorn in the side of presidential hopeful George W. Bush. [10]

Similarly, the spotlight being directed by Justice Denied on the justice system's preying on innocent people isn't going unnoticed. The correspondence between Publisher Clara Boggs and the New Orleans District Attorney's office shows how sensitive prosecutors are to light when they are used to working unobserved in the darkness of shadows. [11] Likewise, Ms. Boggs has received a report that the U. S. Department of  Justice is aware of Justice Denied's publishing activities. Given the unobstructed way they have been able to act for decades, it isn't surprising that a powerful and feared agency in the federal government is taking an interest in a small group of people putting out a fledgling magazine dedicated to presenting the truth about the injustices that agency perpetrates daily against helpless people.

This is the power of the ring of truth. It is the one thing purveyors of prosecutorial injustice fear. As the true life tales in Justice Denied show over and over, prosecutors in particular are masters at trying to undermine the truth with lies, innuendo, smearing, intimidation, neglect of exculpatory evidence, and assuming a false posture of righteousness.

Even though they can be daunting obstacles, devious and underhanded prosecutorial tactics can be overcome. The ring of truth is one of the few things that can effectively break through the wall of lies constructed by prosecutors so that jurors can make an intelligent decision about the fate of an accused man or woman. While it is difficult to do in a courtroom environment, competent defense attorneys rely on skill and wile to expose the web of illusory guilt woven by the prosecution around a defendant.

Out of the courtroom, the same dedication to seeking ways to present the truth is an antidote to the plague of false convictions being foisted on America by a law enforcement system running amuck and unchecked.

End Notes

[1] See: "The Making of a Country Lawyer," Gerry Spence, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1996; and, "With Justice For None: Destroying An American Myth," Gerry Spence, Times Books, N. Y., 1989.

[2] How To Argue and Win Every Time, at home, at work, in court, everywhere, everyday, Gerry Spence, St. Martins Press, New York, 1996. An abridged version is available on audio cassette: How to Argue and Win Every Time, by Gerry Spence, Audio Renaissance, 1995.

[3] U. S. v. Singleton (144 F.3d 1343 (10th Cir. 1998).

[4] 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(2)) reads in part: “Whoever . . . directly or indirectly, gives, offers or promises anything of value to any person, for or because of the testimony under oath or affirmation given or to be given by such person as a witness upon a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, before any court . . . authorized by the laws of the United States to hear evidence or take testimony . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”

[5] A couple examples of this are: “Do not prevent justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the yes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.” Deuteronomy 16:19. and, “Bribery undermines a basic foundation of human existence: that there is one humanity and that all humans have the right to stand as equals before the law. It pulls the rug out from under the widow, the orphan, and all other defenseless and poor people. Bribery, although transacted in secret, is a flagrant violation of the world entrusted to us.” It should read: (Quote from: Torah This Week, Rabbi Pinchas H. Peli, Washington Jewish Week, August 18, 1988).


It is notable that both of these quotes are in a book that explores how special interest lobbyists influence (a polite word for bribe) the way congressmen and senators vote (a form of testimony) on public issues. See: Stealth PACS: Lobbying Congress for Control of U. S. Middle East Policy, Richard H. Curtis, American Educational Trust, Washington D. C., 1996, p. 15.

[6] U. S. v. Singleton, 144 F.3d 1343 (10th Cir. 1998).

[7] The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) published a letter by the author about the abhorrent prosecutorial practice of bribing witnesses to tailor their testimony in court. See: The Oregonian, November 7, 1998, Opinion Page.

[8] U. S. v. Singleton, No. 97-3178 (10th Cir. 01/08/1999).

[9] See e.g., D. A.: Prosecutors in Their Own Words, Mark Baker, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1999. In this book, a prosecutor compares the justice system to an assembly line that processes people. Although someone is legally presumed to be innocent when placed on the conveyor belt that enters the justice system factory, a successful prosecutor ensures that when they get to the end of the line and  process, they have duly been stamped as guilty. (see p. 49).

[10] In cyberspace, citizen Exley on par with G. W. Bush: One man's criticism a national event after Bush irked by site, Joan Lowy (Scripps Howard News Service), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1999, p. A8. This article states in part: “If it weren't for the Internet, Zack Exley would be just another voiceless citizen disenchanted with the state of politics.”

[11] See: New Orleans DA takes issue with Justice Denied Magazine, Clara Boggs, Justice Denied, July 1999, Vol. 1, No. 6.