American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 49, Issue 3 (2013)


Copyright American Judges Association. Used by permission.


Although most of the time people tell the truth, people do lie. On a bad day, those working in the justice system get lied to all day long. Some days the lies are harmless, even unnecessary, and they amuse and entertain. Some of the lies are a product of self-deception: “I can quit doing drugs any time I want.” Some statements are not lies but honest mistakes: “I’m sure that is the guy who robbed me.” But on other days the lies are despicable and dangerous, and they must be exposed.

The question is: Can we tell the difference between the truth and the lie? Many of us would like to believe we can rely on our professional and personal instincts to guide us, or perhaps even on some professional training we have received. Often we rely on a process we cannot precisely describe, but one in which we have confidence nonetheless. We just know. Or do we?

There have been over 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. These cases are dramatic proof that the ability of judges to determine the truth remains suspect. Eighteen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release. The average sentence served by DNA exonerees before their release is about 13 years.1 Exonerations have been won in 35 states and Washington, D.C. And in every case in which DNA led to exoneration, the courts were wrong in determining who was lying. The cost of that mistake could have killed someone and is a stark reminder of just how weak we are in determining who is lying.