Under California law, a single witness can prove any fact. In other words, the testimony of one witness, who states something happened, if believed, is sufficient to convict a person for any crime.
The classic example is the he-said-she-said domestic violence case. A woman calls the police in tears stating that her husband choked her until she lost consciousness. There are no visible injuries, just the wife’s statement. The husband vehemently denies touching the wife in any manner. He states that she is making up the allegations because she believes he is cheating on her. In this type of case, it ultimately comes down to who do you believe is the most credible witness? One person is lying; which person is it?
Another obvious example of the he-said-she-said line of cases is statutory rape where the defendant states the allege act or acts never happened. The minor, age seventeen, proclaims, “She had sex with me!” The female defendant, who is in her twenties, is adamant that she has never had any sexual contact with the minor on any occasion. The jury must decide who is the most believable. Again, one person is lying, and one person is telling the truth.
A less thought about situation is a case based solely on the eyewitness identification of a single witness. Take an individual charged with an attempted homicide for the benefit of a criminal street gang. There is no DNA evidence. There are no surveillance videos or photographs of the suspect. No other witness collaborates the victim’s statement regarding the suspect description. The police merely have the surviving victim’s declaration when viewing a social media picture of multiple subjects, “That person was the shooter!” With the blink of an eye, “that person” is now looking at life in prison.
The standard of proof a jury must use when deciding whether the person on trial is guilty or not guilty is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Under the law, proof beyond a reasonable doubt means an abiding conviction that the charge is true. This standard leaves room for some doubt—possible doubt—just not a reasonable doubt. Therefore, under the law, even if the jurors have a slight doubt as to guilt, the jury can still render a guilty verdict.
Of course, convictions would be nearly impossible if the standard was absolute certainty, or no doubts whatsoever. Maybe an incident captured on surveillance video would be a no-brainer, but even then, if there is a mental state requirement for the crime, videos do not memorialize an individual’s inner thoughts.
Unfortunately, however, in the single witness cases, it is all too easy for juries to use a lower burden of proof than intended under the law to return a guilty verdict. For instance, the complaining witness in a sex case may take the stand and make numerous inconsistent statements. While memory fades with the passage of time, important details do not waiver. The truth does not change. Not remembering the color shirt you had on at the time of the incident is reasonable. Not remembering if you were lying on your left side or right side is understandable. But, not remembering where you were when the sexual contact occurred is less reasonable. Giving completely contradicting statements about where you had sexual contact is less reasonable. If you are claiming sexual assault—and alcohol was not a factor—the location of the assault should be seared in your mind.
Nevertheless, especially in sex cases, juries rationalize the memory problems. Jurors chalk up the inconsistencies to the victim does not want to be testifying. The victim has erased the atrocity from her memory. We would not be here if it did not happen, the jury justifies. The defendant must be lying; he has an interest in the outcome of the case. These rationales can be true at times, but the problem starts when jurors use these thoughts to lower the prosecution’s burden of proof.
If criminal defendants always lie, then there would be no place for jury trials. Once someone is arrested of a crime, they are automatically guilty under this theory. The presumption of guilt would apply as opposed to the presumption of innocence. Everyone has heard of cases, though, where someone is falsely accused. In fact, many people have been falsely accused of something—even if it does not arise to the level of criminal charges—at some point in their lives. No one accused of a crime would waive his Fifth Amendment right and give testimony on the witness stand if the presumption under the law was he is a liar merely because he is charged with a crime.
Likewise, if an alleged victim of a crime were always truthful, there would also be no reason to have jury trials. If a person says it happened, then it must be so, would be the line of thought. Anyone could cry wolf and ruin a person’s life forever.
While it may be convenient to assume that no one would be in court if the crime did not occur or that the accused must be lying because he has an interest in the outcome of the case, such thoughts truly do lower the burden of the prosecution. The district attorney no longer has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the prosecution solely has to establish that it is possible that the situation could have happened. It is possible that the alleged victim was raped. It is possible that the accused was the person at the scene as the witness claims. A likelihood that something happened a certain way, a possibility, is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, though.
Do not let people’s lives be flipped upside down because there is a possibility of guilt. Put yourself in the shoes of the accused or the family of the accused. Consider how you would feel if you were accused of murder only because a witness said that you looked like the shooter he saw at the scene. It quickly becomes evident why injustice results when the burden of proof is shifted to a standard much below proof beyond a reasonable doubt.