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What counts and what does not

Edgar Matobato appeared before the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights.  Leila de Lima, not too long ago the object of President Digong’s furious tirades, presided.  Everyone, of course, expected an anti-Digong slant to the proceedings, but nobody had any way of anticipating what Matobato had to say.  Without mincing words, the witness alleged that it was the President who, as mayor of Davao, directed and controlled the dreaded “Davao Death Squad” of which Matobato claims he was a member.  He describes how victims were shot, at least 50 of them by Matobato himself, and how the victim’s bellies were slit open and weighted with hollow blocks so that they would sink to the sea-floor.  Now, of course, the question on everyone’s mind is whether Matobato spoke the truth or whether he had perjured himself.

And that brings us to what really interests me: the rules of evidence as a practical form of the theory of knowledge.  Senator Panfilo Lacson warned Matobato about inconsistencies in his testimony.  Alan Peter Cayetano, eager to exculpate President Digong, grilled the witness over and above the vehement objections of Sonny Trillanes that he was taking too much time and was out of order. But Cayetano called attention to what he considered inconsistencies in Matobato’s testimony.  When a witness contradicts himself on a material point, the reason that his testimony counts for very little is because it is difficult to ascertain which, among his contradictory assertions, he affirms to be the truth.  But it is really unreasonable to expect of a witness so lucid a recollection of events that the chronology is perfect at every turn.  This is the reason that the Supreme Court has admonished courts to be circumspect about rejecting testimony because of inconsistencies.  A coached witness, it is believed, tells an airtight story.  A veridical account will be afflicted somehow by the vagaries of human recall.

Digong’s supporters have already decided that Matobato is lying, just as his detractors have likewise made up their minds about the truthfulness of his averments.  But that, of course, is not the rational way truth-claims are settled.  In fact, it is salutary to check whether or not personal feelings towards Digong come in the way of a rational assessment of the veridical.  There are no hard and fast rules, but this is not true only of investigative or judicial proceedings. This is true of all of life.  How does one tell that another is telling the truth?  Wives think they know when their husbands are lying, and sometimes they are right. I think I know when my friend is deceiving me. There are, in other words, unwritten indicia of truthfulness as well as of its opposite.  And most of these take the form of tacit analogizing:  How do I act when I am spinning a fib?  And if the other person exhibits these, I conclude he is lying.  The supposition of course is that I am a fair specimen of typical humanity—which may not at all be the case.

What does one conclude from the fact that a witness remembers somethings but not others?  On the one hand, selective memory sounds suspicious—but all memory, on the other hand, is in fact selective.  The human mind, it appears, is wired in such wise as to shield us from information overload by eliminating from memory some data.  But we have not yet completely understood the mechanism by which some memories are retained while others fade away.  In this sense, forgetting is a capacity—not a liability.  I do not think it is then justified to infer that just because a person is unable to recall some details, he can recall none at all or is merely prevaricating.  As for falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, that typical lawyer’s gambit of making the witness trip on one point and from there pass to the conclusion that he cannot be trusted at all, it should not count for much, because it is very clearly fallacious (the fact that one lies on one point does not supply logical warrant for the conclusion that he lies on all points). It is no more than a stylized rendition of human suspiciousness: Why should I trust someone who lied to me once?  And even if the answer is clear— because there is no reason to conclude that he is lying all the time—we remain suspicious, children of the lie that we all are!

So it is that it has always been my position that not even the Supreme Court can make doctrines out of general statements on truth and falsehood.  “When a rape victim says she has been raped, she has said all that the court needs to know” is one such generalization.  Can that be doctrinal?  Of course not.  In the first place, it is silly—because when one says that she has been raped, all that we know is that she claims she was raped.  Such a proposition is not self-guaranteeing.  No proposition is, except purely definitional statements.  Even the rule against hearsay evidence is not very sound, for in life, much of what we know comes from what the law calls hearsay.  The only reason that it is inadmissible is because the original source cannot be cross-examined.  Of course, having laid down such a sweeping rule, jurisprudence had to craft a host of exceptions, among them the dying declaration and what is known by the archaic phrase “parts of the res gestae” which means nothing more than statements one makes following a surprising, startling or shocking event where chances are that one has had no time nor occasion to fabricate a lie.

So, Matobato has testified —and now comes the more difficult task of sifting truth from falsehood and that is a task for people in earnest about the truth, which is what we suppose of every investigator, but sadly do not so always find in all.

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Topics: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino , Edgar Matobato , Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights , Leila de Lima ,
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