This last week, in a quest to resurrect movies from the 1990s, my wife and I watched the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts movie, "Conspiracy Theory." In the movie, Mel Gibson plays to type as an eccentric crazy-person, spouting off conspiracy theories. His best theory is that NASA is using sonic waves to make an attempt on the president's life by causing an earthquake when the president visits Turkey. The reason given for NASA going after the president is that he wants to defund the space program.
If I forgo the suspension of disbelief required for a Hollywood movie, I would first have to ask myself why conspiracy theorists always have such a poor grasp of basic civics. The House Ways and Means Committee would be a far better target than the president. When it comes to funding, civics says look to congress, not the president.
A complete ignorance of civics aside, the most compelling thing about a conspiracy theory is that any evidence contrary to the theory only tends to increase its likelihood. If you don't believe me, just argue with someone who believes a "conspiracy theory." Contrary evidence becomes evidence of the conspiracy. Bombs really brought down the World Trade Center, not the planes flying into the buildings. The planes, the terrorists who hijacked the planes were simply a distraction hiding the real intent and the real perpetrators. The evidence doesn't matter, because the more evidence you show to prove the conspiracy theory wrong, only proves how masterful the conspirators were. If you still doubt me, argue with a conspiracy theorist on Facebook.
Conspiracy theories operate in exact opposition to the way our legal system is designed to operate. Contrary evidence is seen legally as evidence to decrease the likelihood of a theory, not increase it. The law has developed an elaborate set of rules of evidence to eliminate error and to find the truth in the courtroom. Those who aren't familiar with the courtroom can find the rules very limiting and feel like the court is trying to keep people away from the truth, rather than illuminate the truth.
One classic rule of evidence that limits testimony is the hearsay rule. (Hearsay also happens to be the most used tool of the conspiracy theorist and urban legend perpetrators.) The definition of hearsay in the Rules of Evidence is "a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement." Maybe part of our problems as lawyers is that we say things that make people who speak normal English, say "Huh?" A better way to think about hearsay is like this: If you didn't see it happen, you can't testify about what happened, even if someone told you what happened.
Of course being lawyers and human, we like hearing hearsay as much as the next person, so the rule against hearsay has about 30 exceptions, including a general exception that gives you an opportunity to prove the hearsay can be seen as reliable.
The point is, we have centuries of trials (and errors) to find out what makes evidence reliable in the courtroom. The goal of the justice system isn't to hide truth, but to discover it by removing human bias, prejudice, passion and error from the process. Is the system perfect? No, but it is a system that is constantly analyzed and adjusted to achieve better results. If there is a conspiracy, it is an open conspiracy of judges and lawyers sending emails back and forth over how the court rules can be tweaked and improved.
Or of course, this column could really be just part of a bigger legal conspiracy.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.