The three kinds of truth

The three kinds of truth
Source: Reusableart.com

Whenever a trial is in the news, as the one in Kenosha is, I start noticing the judge’s expressions — especially when the new witnesses come in.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

Part of me expects a witness to ask “All three?”

The truth is straightforward. I’m sitting at my desk typing and thinking this up as I go — not working from paper notes. I’ve crossed three things off my to-do list already today.

The whole truth is bigger. I’m writing in the morning because I have to go to the eye doctor later. I won’t want to see anything small, like type on a screen, when I get home. The radiator in my apartment has the air in here around 84 degrees, so I’ve put my hair up with combs and I’m thinking about a ponytail again before I go out. There are a lot of other things I could mention about my surroundings, but there’s the point — they’re still part of the whole truth, but you just don’t need them. I keep thinking that editing is not meant to be part of the whole truth.

Nothing but the truth is the third kind of truth in testimony. Anything that gets mentioned needs to be true. For example, I had to look at my wall thermometer to make sure it was still in the 80s in here, because I feel cooler. I can’t testify about how cold it is outside because I haven’t gone out. I could tell you after I check. Meanwhile, “I feel cooler” is the truth, but it is only part of the truth.

So you see? These are three different kinds of truth. When I think of them, I feel a little better about the inescapable interviews with various celebrities who want to “tell their truths.” It makes me nervous that different people can have different truths; I feel better about many people having pieces of the whole truth.

After all, we still talk about the truth, and that’s singular.

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  • The three parts have legal significance. The truth means fact, but an untruth is not necessarily a lie, the latter usually requiring an intent to lie. The oath of "the whole truth" isn't technically correct, as witnesses can't say the whole truth if an objection is properly made based on the rules of evidence. Another context is provided by securities law, which requires that a misrepresentation (note, again, not a lie) be material, in the sense that you would not have bought or sold the stock but for the misrepresentation. Thus, if a prospectus for Tesla doesn't say that Elon Musk intends to leave next month, but you bought the stock because you think the Infrastructure bill will be good for the company, it isn't the whole truth, but it isn't material. As for "nothing but the truth," a positive misrepresentation must also be material.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you for the context, Jack.

  • It calls for truth material to the matters at issue as determined by the questions asked of the witness, not a listing of all verities. Let me suggest hypothetical testimony.

    The truth: "I saw Joe pick up the trinket he is accused of stealing (true). Later I saw Joe leave the store and he was carrying nothing (also true)."

    The whole truth: "When I saw Joe pick up the trinket, I saw him put it in his pocket."

    Nothing but the truth: "Joe put the trinket in his pocket because he mistook it for his own." (I believe this, but I don't know it to be true.)

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Your #3 relies on inference, which seems like it isn't "nothing but the truth." Maybe a correct example would be "and i heard him tell the security guard that he mistook it for his own." Maybe a statement of nothing but the truth would be to substitute "but I thought" for "because," but that generally would be irrelevant. "Saw him put it in his pocket" saves #2 from the same criticism.

    1 & 2 do illustrate the distinction between truth and the whole truth, as 1 doesn't lead to the conclusion that he took it out of the store. From the facts in 1, he could have put it back in the case.

    The real world example came up today. Until the trial, I don't recall the media saying that Grosskreutz pointed a gun at Rittenhouse (the whole truth) and, this afternoon, the defense attorney said that the prosecutor put two brothers on the stand about whom the state police report said were liars (nothing but the the truth).

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you again, Jack. The real-world example is exactly why I posted this today. I was amazed by the verdict, but I figured that there must have been some evidence the jury had seen that I had not.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I don't know what you personally saw or what the media portrayed, but I concluded about 2 weeks ago that the prosecution witnesses made out the defense case of self defense, by one victim grabbing for the rifle, another clobbering him with a skateboard, and the third pulling out a gun. The usual law at that point is that it is the prosecution's burden to disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt, which it didn't do to the jury's satisfaction. Both sides agreed that the gun was legal under Wisconsin law, somehow the curfew charge was thrown out, and there isn't any other law criminalizing being a punk on the street.

  • In reply to jack:

    #3 is not inference. It is a statement of fact. It may be based on inference, which is why it would violate the admonition, but it is still a statement of fact.

    Your example of "nothing but the truth" drawn from the Rittenhouse trial involves another issue altogether. The defense has suggested that the prosecutor violated due process by using false testimony in violation of Supreme Court cases Napue v. Illinois (1959) and Brady v. Maryland (1963).

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Whatever the legal basis of the objection, false testimony isn't "nothing buy the truth." The witnesses violated their oath, no matter what laws the prosecutors violated by putting them on the stand, presumably knowing that there were text messages to the contrary.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yes, Jack. I think false testimony could be called "anything but the truth."

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you, jnorto. I don't think we've heard the last of this trial, even though there is a verdict.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    At least until the Ahmed Arbury trial verdict.

  • In reply to jack:

    I'm not as familiar with that case as with the Rittenhouse one, but thank you for the reminder.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you for clear examples, jnorto.

  • "The whole truth" -- state all material context as part of your testimony.

    "Nothing but the truth" -- Do not pass off speculation, bias, or inference, as fact. It's okay to state them, but you must clearly label/differentiate them from the direct observations of physical events.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    Thanks, Grundoon. Those are good definitions.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    The latter seems to be where we disagree with jnorto, The jury may draw inferences from the evidence, but generally speaking, witnesses may not (experts excepted).

  • In reply to jack:

    No, witnesses can give their opinion on matters of common observation, as long as it is clear that it is opinion. "He drove by very fast" is permitted. He drove by at seventy-two miles per hour" may not be.

    By the way, my third hypothetical was to show testimony that violated the "nothing but the truth" admonition. I'm sorry if I misled you.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thanks for clearing that up. He drove very fast would be a matter of common knowledge, but he mistook it for his own would not.

  • In reply to jack:

    Correct.

  • Thank you, Jack and jnorto. I hope you've enjoyed your conversation as much as I've enjoyed hosting it.

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