Columnists > Voices

How many witnesses?

Looking for good counsel for modern-day American law

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

A loyal and thoughtful WORLD reader from Thousand Oaks, Calif., wrote this week with the kind of worldview question we love to wrestle with here. How many witnesses, Brad Wright asks, should be necessary in modern-day America to convict someone of breaking the law?

For Mr. Wright, this has not been just a theoretic matter. On several occasions, he has been summoned in his county for jury duty. And twice, in connection with those summons, he has also been asked directly: "Would one witness be sufficient to establish a fact that might then in turn establish guilt?"

Because Mr. Wright takes the Bible seriously, he couldn't help thinking immediately of Deuteronomy 19:15, which says just about as plainly as it possibly could: "A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established." Mr. Wright resolved that he would tell court officials that he held to a multiple-witness requirement-and when he told them that, based on California law, he was dismissed from the jury pool.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

One of the two cases involved rape; the other was a traffic speeding case. So the potential consequences were quite different. But Mr. Wright sensed that the principle was the same: A defendant should enjoy the presumption of innocence at least until jurors have heard from multiple witnesses.

And Mr. Wright was also persuaded, through careful study, that this was no narrowly constructed idea-but a consistently argued principle of God's justice. Old Testament and New Testament references make the point repeatedly; you might even note that the Bible offers multiple witnesses on this issue. "I conclude," says Mr. Wright, "that the two-witness requirement applies not just to death penalty cases, but to all judgments. God indicates that we should be very sure before imposing a penalty for wrongdoing-and seems to want us to err on the side of mercy even though that could mean setting a criminal free. So I wonder if the U.S. legal system that declares someone 'innocent until proven guilty' isn't somewhat based on this principle of erring on the side of mercy."

So far, so good. But honest inquirer that he is, Mr. Wright also wants to know: What constitutes a "witness"? Is a fingerprint or a tape recording or a DNA analysis or a videotape a "witness" in terms of the Bible's requirement? How about a retouched photo? Suppose, for example, that you were a rape victim, and that the case boiled down to your word against that of the perpetrator-and then you were able to offer scientific evidence (but no personal testimony) that backed up your claim?

Or, to shift the scene as in Mr. Wright's case, suppose a lone highway patrolman stops you for speeding late one night in the vicinity of a notorious speed trap. When you get to court, it's your word against his-except that in the end, he has the read-out of a radar unit that clocks you at 16 miles over the posted limit. How many witnesses would you say are present in that courtroom?

The Bible itself alludes to some unusual witnesses. In a court case against Cain, brought in for the alleged murder of his brother Abel, it might have proved pretty tricky to find multiple traditional witnesses-especially in a total world population that may not have reached double digits. Remarkably, though, God hears something very basic: "The voice of your brother's blood," he tells Cain, "is crying to me from the ground." And when God deals with all the rest of us, we are told in 1 John 5:7-8, there are three that bear an almost mystical witness: "the Spirit, the water, and the blood-and the three are in agreement." That one may even drive you to a dependable Bible commentary.

So what'll your response be the next time you're summoned for jury duty? And what is your counsel for Mr. Wright-who is quite serious about not wanting to be wrong?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…