Monday, June 15, 2009

Defendants' Unsworn Testimony: Readers Respond

Last Friday I noted that newspaper accounts of the murder trial of an American in Italy reported that she gave unsworn testimony, apparently a usual occurrence in a civil law country like Italy, but plainly unusual from the point of view of the American legal system. I wondered what weight is given to the unsworn testimony of a defendant, when all other witnesses testify under oath, and I asked whether readers could provide any insight.

Lawrence W. Kessler, the Richard J. Cardali Distinguished Professor of Trial Advocacy at Hofstra Law School, writes that although the defendant's testimony is not under oath, she can still be believed. He draws the analogy to a trial in the United States in which the judge states "the court takes the testimony for what it is worth." He also notes with respect to civil litigation in a civil law country, that since the parties cannot testify under oath, the plaintiff cannot prove his case through his own testimony.

Walter Signorelli, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, writes that one of the reasons defendants could not give sworn testimony under the common law was the concern that they would be tempted to lie and therefore face commitment to hell. He recommends James Whitman's book, The Origins of Reasonable Doubt (Yale University Press), which traces the history of the oath.

IN THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT TODAY: the Supreme Court released two decisions today. In Polar Tankers Inc. v. City of Valdez, Alaska, the Court ruled unconstitutional a municipal personal property tax imposed on large vessels which travel to and from Valdez.

Under federal immigration law an alien who is convicted of an "aggravated felony" is deportable. An aggravated felony includes a crime of fraud or deceit in which the loss to the victim exceeds $10,000. In Nijhawan v. Holder the Court rules on how an immigration judge is to determine whether the $10,000 threshold has been met.

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