Friday, June 12, 2009

The Unsworn Testimony of a Defendant

When reading today's account in the New York Times of the murder trial of an American in Italy, "American Murder Suspect Testifies at Trial in Italy," I was struck by the final paragraph of the article which reported that the defendant did not testify under oath because in Italy only witnesses, but not the defendant, testify under oath.

I should not have been surprised. Italy follows the civil law system, and it is my understanding that in civil law countries defendants give only unsworn testimony.

I suppose what struck me is that under the civil law system the status of a defendant as a witness is so different from all other witnesses. But I quickly realized that the roots of our common law system are no different.

Under the common law of England, which was adopted here, a defendant could not even testify in his own behalf on the theory that a person with an interest in the outcome of the case was disqualified from being a witness. Only in 1869 did New York enact a statute which for the first time gave the accused the right to testify, an event the New York Court of Appeals once characterized as "a milestone in the progress of criminal jurisprudence." People v. Rakiec, 289 N.Y. 306, 309 (1942).

What is unclear to me is the probative value of the defendant's testimony in a civil law trial: in this Italian trial of an American what weight do the triers of fact give to her testimony if all the witnesses, except the defendant, testify under oath. Perhaps a reader can provide an answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment