Friday, July 27, 2007

Evaluating witnesses

Today, boys and girls, we are going to discuss things that you may wish to consider in the evaluation of witnesses.

Oh, come on Spotty. We have discussed this before!

Nevertheless, grasshopper, a refresher is apparently in order. You will recall that the four testimonial qualities are perception, recollection, communication, and prevarication, or lack of it. (You could say truthfulness or veracity instead of prevarication, but it wouldn't have the nice shun at the end of it.) For today, we are particularly concerned with the first quality: perception. You have probably heard lawyers say "Objection, foundation!" a lot. Well, maybe not, but if you hung around the courthouse a little more you would.

What our objecting lawyer is saying is that the witness has been asked a question for which it has not been demonstrated that the witness has first-hand knowledge of the answer. To take a simple example, before a witness may testify that the traffic light was red or green, the witness must first demonstrate that s/he was at the intersection at the time in question and actually saw the light color. Elementary, really.

Proving that the witness can give first-hand testimony about the color of the traffic light is known as laying the foundation. It is a critical part of making a record in court. There is an additional wrinkle for expert witnesses: witnesses who are permitted to give opinions in court, about medical or scientific matters, for example. If you cannot qualify your expert--lay a foundation for the opinion that you want the expert to offer--the court will not permit the "expert" to offer the opinion.

How do you lay a foundation--sometimes called qualifying--for an expert's testimony? You make a record--offer testimony--about the expert's credentials: training, experience, books and scholarly articles authored; you get the idea. You're trying to show that the witness really is an expert and whose opinion should have weight. Now, let's apply what we've learned to two real-world witnesses: Scott Thomas Beauchamp and Peter Hegseth. It is an interesting exercise, Spot promises.

Scott Thomas Beauchamp, using the semi-transparent nom de plume Scott Thomas, wrote an article for The New Republic describing the morally-deadening aspect of wartime service in Iraq. For some of the deep thinkers in the right wing like Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, Jonah Goldberg, and the extra-odious Mark Steyn, this is just unacceptable! And of course, Scotty huffed and puffed, too. But you know what? None of the collected ignorami can point out where Beauchamp's story is false. Oh, some sleuth at the Weekly Standard thought he found something, but he really wound up confirming rather that refuting facts:

As you may know, a little while back a soldier serving in Iraq writing under the pseudonym "Scott Thomas" did a piece for TNR detailing the morally deadening aspects of wartime service in Iraq. The Weekly Standard and the conservative blogosphere whipped themselves into a frenzy wherein they convinced themselves that Thomas' story was bogus. In the course of doing so they accidentally confirmed a key detail -- Thomas unit did, just as he wrote, uncover a bunch of children's bones during the construction of a combat outpost.

The critics, however, managed to convince themselves that their discovery of this children's grave incident actually debunked Thomas' claim that he had found a mass grave even though his article didn't claim this. At the same time, the Standard was reduced to arguing that Thomas couldn't have witnesses [sic] soldiers using a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to kill dogs because -- ta da -- to do so would violate Army Standard Operating Procedure. Then they started making a big deal out of the idea that TNR editor Frank Foer labeled . . . Thomas . . . a soldier with "near certainty" -- why not total certainty?

Well, now here he is -- his real name is Scott Thomas Beauchamp, he's a soldier, and as best I can tell nobody has yet brought forward any serious reason to doubt his story. Needless to say, rather than spend some time reflecting on the fact-free zone the conservative press is trying to create, Jonah Goldberg is attacking Beauchamp while Mark Steyn argues that Jonah isn't attacking him viciously enough.

Not a single one of these right-wing hyenas can lay a glove on Beauchamp's story, because he's "testifying" from personal knowledge, and none of them has any personal knowledge or a witness to refute him. That doesn't stop the wind ensemble from trying. Do you hear that little high-pitched toot toot toot, boys and girls? That's Michelle Malkin.

Take on the other hand the Iraq "expert" that Katie wants to foist on us: Peter Hegseth. Katie tell us, and so does Peter, that Peter's got the recipe for Iraq because, well, let's let Peter tell us:

"Who better to lead the fight for finishing the mission than the guys who fought on the front-lines and understand the stakes of the battle?" Hegseth said.

At 27, Peter's qualifications seem to be that 1) he's shot at Iraqis, and 2) a right-wing think tank is willing to keep him off the street.

So now Spot asks you boys and girls, who is the more credible witness? Peter Hegseth who claims to  know how to win the war in Iraq, or Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who is just talking about some of his personal experiences?

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